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Steve Wyche: Where the Falcons stand heading into training camp 

Arthur Smith, Terry Fontenot consider Matt Ryan (and developing the squad around him) key to 2021 fortunes

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With AT&T Training Camp kicking off, there's no reason to think that the Falcons can't be competitive. Thirty-one other teams will also be feeling good about themselves right now, so….

What are the Falcons?

Where do they stand?

The roster is in flux, which isn't a bad thing coming off a 4-12 season. Atlanta traded its best player, wide receiver Julio Jones, to the Titans after both parties realized it wouldn't work anymore. Quarterback Matt Ryan is 36 years old and the team is committed to him through at least one more season. Other than wideout Calvin Ridley and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, where is another potential Pro Bowler? The coaching staff and personnel departments are new. The salary cap is still somewhat prohibitive.

Ideologically, according to first-time head coach Arthur Smith and first-time general manager Terry Fontenot, this is what they are: a team trying to fortify the roster around Ryan to compete while he still has it, while also making sure that when a quarterback transition eventually happens, the new guy has a fortified structure upon which to grow and flourish.

It's not a new blueprint. The Chiefs did it prior to transitioning from Alex Smith to Patrick Mahomes. Heck, the Falcons did it when they drafted Ryan in 2008, adding players like rusher Michael Turner, offensive tackle Sam Baker and linebacker Curtis Lofton to a solid overall roster that already included wide receiver Roddy White, center Todd McClure, pass rusher John Abraham and linebacker Keith Brooking. They made a move for Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez the following year and the Falcons were off and running.

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"The first thing, when I took the job, is you've got to be objective when reviewing the film to see where [Ryan] is at in his career," Smith said. "He is still playing at a high level."

Added Fontenot: "Now you have to draft well and start cultivating that young core."

That sounds simple but, to make it all work, Smith and his staff must establish a certain amount of success right away.

Does that come with wins and losses? Player development? There's no right answer, though some foundation of progress must be built this season.

According to Smith, Ryan gives them hope that can happen as the team kicks off training camp.

Besides reassuring Falcons brass this offseason that he still has what it takes to play at a high level physically, Smith said Ryan really has bought into leading a roster that's younger than him in every way. From weight training to positional and individual meetings, Ryan has been front and center. He has let players know he's not the old man trying to force excellence for his benefit, but that he's also there for them.

"Don't tell him his days are numbered," Fontenot said. "He really is going about things with a chip on his shoulder, with something to prove. Seeing that 24/7 and how he operates, you know he's putting everything into it to win as many games as he can. Working with the guys over the summer, he's constantly having conversations. Going to running backs and wide receiver drills, explaining to them how things should be. This is the reason he has won. He knows what he's talking about and guys listen."

One of the conversations about Ryan, among opposing coaches, team and league personnel folks is that, for him to flourish, things must work well around him. That's the case for a lot of quarterbacks, but we have seen how much better Ryan is when everyone around him is clicking. That includes players and coaches.

This is where Smith and Fontenot are going to have to earn their money.

To buoy themselves in their first season on these jobs and their first season working together, Smith and Fontenot made sure they aren't too young or too old at any position.

It's a common diagram to have vets who can still play to ease the expectations on young players and to elicit wisdom when needed. It's more important, though, to find vets with those qualities who also know that the younger players are going to get their opportunities at some point and it's not the veterans' role to impede.

That's not always easy. Pride and ego are powerful cocktails.

Smith said it's important for his staff is to constantly develop young players. That's not simple once real games kick off, since coaches and players spend nearly every waking moment game-planning and navigating how to keep players fresh – a concept paramount now that the NFL has moved to 17-game seasons.

"We're going to be evaluating in camp, preseason games and the joint practices with Miami will be important," Smith said. "We'll get a good assessment down there. We're going to have to rely on these guys, these young players. The development doesn't stop once we get into the regular season. We may have their impact Week 5 or Week 9. You develop them by how you script your practices, to make sure you have periods where you get those guys reps."

Player development is hugely under-appreciated, and some teams simply do it better than others. It's why Baltimore, Seattle, the Rams, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and some other teams always seem to be able to replace players and remain competitive.

Atlanta Falcons players arrived on Monday for 2021 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.

The Falcons won't have time to wait for everyone. They need some players to prove their worthiness immediately, especially along the offensive line.

Smith and Fontenot said every position up front will be challenged. Smith, a former offensive lineman, said he is "fascinated" to see how things shake out on the offensive line with rookies Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman very much in play.

Outside of the offensive line, running back will be a heated competition. Mike Davis is positioned to be the early-down back, but Smith said this will be backfield by committee. There is no Derek Henry workhorse back like Smith had as offensive coordinator in Tennessee. Cordarelle Patterson will get his share of carries for sure, but then what? There is some excitement about undrafted running backs Javion Hawkins and Caleb Huntley, who get to see if they're up to snuff with the pads coming on.

There are position battles in nearly every other position group except inside linebacker, Jarret's defensive tackle spot and A.J. Terrell's roost at cornerback. The safety group, with a mix of veterans and position wildcard, rookie Richie Grant, will be under scrutiny as defensive coordinator Dean Pees pieces things together.

First-round tight end Kyle Pitts has already generated buzz this offseason with his approach and on-field potential. There are big plans for him and Hayden Hurst. Having a vet like Lee Smith around makes tight end arguably the most solid position group overall heading into camp.

Ridley and Russell Gage enter camp as the top two wide receivers. From that point, there will be a serious process as to who works their way into the rotation.

There is so much work to be done, but Smith said the most important thing for him and his staff is to be fluid in how they design their schemes for their personnel. Smith's offense won't look exactly like it did in his old stomping ground of Tennessee because the Falcons don't have a fleet of big wide receivers, established maulers on the offensive line or Henry.

By switching to a 3-4 defensive front, a lot must be figured out in training camp and beyond, despite the fact teams only play base front about 30 percent of the time because they are in some form of nickel or sub-package.

So, to get back the question posed at the beginning of this column, "What are the Falcons?"

Clearly, a work in progress.

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