FLOWERY BRANCH, GA — Out behind the Falcons practice fields looms what everyone on the club calls "The Barn," an affectionate name for the indoor facility the team retreats to when bad weather looms over Flowery Branch.
It's also where each year the franchise houses its rookies, no matter the stature, first-round pick or undrafted free agent.
In 2008, general manager Thomas Dimitroff's first draft class hung their cleats and rested between practices in The Barn and made some decisions.
Matt Ryan, Sam Baker, Curtis Lofton, Chevis Jackson and, to a lesser extent, Thomas DeCoud, Kroy Biermann and Harry Douglas made a pact in those early days of training camp with the Falcons in '08, a season when there was about as little expectation as a franchise could have.
They told each other, many of them having the knowledge that they'd be looked upon to win starting roles with the team, that they were going to make a difference. Collectively, they would help bring the Falcons franchise around.
Fast forward three years and that handful of players sits front and center as Atlanta enters the third year under the Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith era.
There's been much discussion this preseason about the Falcons and their third-year players, a year many people around the league look to as the one that makes or breaks careers. Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez pointed to those players on the first day of training camp as guys that will be counted on to stay on the arc they're currently on.
"A lot of guys are hitting that third and fourth year and they are coming into their own," Gonzalez said. "Obviously our quarterback is one of them and this is the year they've got to start playing. If we do that and everything goes according to the normal schedule of NFL evolution I guess we're going to be pretty good."
Lofton, who has started every game but one at the team's middle linebacker spot in his career, believes in the third-year idea and says he and his young teammates embrace the expectations.
"You can't be like 'Oh, I'm still young,' " Lofton said. "We're throwing that excuse aside and we're ready to play."
Having played so many meaningful snaps so early in their career makes them unusual veterans and places them in a position to capitalize on their early success and catapult them into notoriety around the league. Smith said he doesn't think of his third-year guys as players in their third year in the league and believes they're beyond their years in service to the team.
"The number of snaps these guys have participated in are a lot more than most third-year players," Smith said. "I think that's why the expectations for them to continue their process of learning what we're trying to do is pointing up. They're more experienced than their number of years chronologically."
Erik Coleman, a player entering his seventh season, had success early in his own career (entering his third season he was a two-year starter with six interceptions for the Jets), feels a rise to prominence for a player can take around three seasons and the Falcons have a few players ready to receive national attention.
"I think that first year a lot of guys are rookies and are out there just playing football. They're just running to go tackle the ball," Coleman said. "They may have some success. You can see their talent. Their second year they might go out there and make some plays, but people don't really know about them. That third year, everyone in the league knows that you're the guy."
Coleman sees the third season as the time when everyone around the league is watching to see what happens next. Players like Lofton and DeCoud with a few seasons under their belt enter 2010 poised to take that next step, according to Coleman.
"You're Curtis Lofton and everyone knows that Curtis Lofton is a really good linebacker, but is he going to take it to the next level or is he going to stay where he is?" Coleman said. "Curtis is a guy who's going to go to the next level. Same with (Thomas) DeCoud. He's a player that's going to continue to rise up. That's why we have those guys around. They have that positive attitude, they want to get better and they expect to see continued improvement from themselves."
DeCoud says the third year presents an opportunity for a better grasp on the defense, being able to anticipate what you're seeing and understanding and recognizing formations and tendencies that you've seen repeatedly, all of which comes with increased time on the playing field, practice field, and meeting rooms.
"It's just reps and experience, seeing things that you may not have seen in college or your first two years in the league," DeCoud said. "And building off what you have seen in your first two years that you've accrued playing in the league. The third year is crucial, you have a pretty good understanding of what you're doing; the big picture is starting to click for you as a defensive player, and also learning what other offenses like to do. How they like to attack your scheme and what certain plays they can do out of certain formations."
The players believe there are some psychological aspects to the third-year effect as well. Having lived in the same place for three years allows the players to get comfortable in their surroundings, settle into their lives, and turn their focus solely to football between August and January.
"All that is settled," Lofton said of the life outside of football. "You're not running around, you don't get lost. You know how to get to the hotel, just the little things like that that make life a lot easier, you don't have to worry about."
Of the Falcons' 11 picks in 2008, nine are still with the team, including five starters and two more who figure to play prominent roles in 2010.
After an 11-5 season in their rookie year, with a trip to the playoffs, and a 9-7 finish last season that saw the franchise erase the distinction of never having back-to-back winning seasons, the Falcons and their third-year crew have the experience necessary to catapult them back into the playoffs and beyond.
They're well on their way to achieving exactly what they said they would on an early August day back in 2008.