Flowery Branch, Ga -- With Falcons OTAs set to come to a conclusion on Thursday, many of the players are already setting their sights on time away from football but also a return to form once training camp begins at the end of July.
Running back Michael Turner, who was slowed some last season with an injured ankle, worked hard in the offseason on conditioning. He used the OTAs to regain the form that saw him produce a record-breaking season in 2008 with 1,699 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns.
"I was getting my old explosiveness back earlier than last year," Turner said Wednesday. "I think I'm ahead of the game right now. Hopefully I can keep improving on that so I can go into August cruising."
The idea of arriving in August in top shape, mentally and physically, with the season on the brink was the goal of the coaching staff as well.
Head Coach Mike Smith said the vast majority of the team's playbook has been installed over the course of minicamp and team OTAs. Offseason sessions were used to script the training camp routine so all the players won't be working through a learning process that is completely foreign to them.
Smith was especially pleased with how the team's rookies absorbed everything. The team employed a rookie mini camp for the first time under Smith's tenure, and he believes that helped prepare them for the tension of training camp.
"I think that we accomplished putting in our system for our new players," said Smith. "We did some different things [this year] in terms of how we worked with our rookie players. We had rookie coaching sessions on days that we were not having OTAs so it allowed them to get up to speed a little bit quicker. I think that was something that we accomplished."
The Falcons welcomed back a familiar face on Wednesday with the return of 11-year veteran defensive end John Abraham. Abraham had not been present for the team's OTAs until last week.
"It was good to get John in," said Smith. "Like I've said from the beginning, we've known where John is. All of these workouts are optional. John has really been with us for two weeks. Last week was a passing camp so we were emphasizing the passing game. John's been with us. We're excited about getting him rolling like he did in 2008."
The Falcons anticipate a strong season from Abraham, who led the team with 16.5 sacks in '08. Last season his sack total dipped to 5.5, but he and the coaching staff were encouraged by how often the three-time Pro Bowler was in the opposing quarterback's vicinity.
Wide receiver Harry Douglas, defensive end Peria Jerry, and cornerback Brian Williams continued to work on the side in their rehabs. Douglas, who tore his ACL in training camp last July, was working on his explosion, running sprints with Director of Athletic Performance Jeff Fish.
Smith said left tackle Sam Baker was excused from practice on Wednesday.
No contract concern
This week's signing of fourth-round center Joe Hawley and fifth-round cornerback Dominique Franks brought Atlanta's draft pick signings to four.
First-round linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, third-round offensive lineman Mike Johnson, and fifth-round wide receiver Kerry Meier remain unsigned, but Johnson said he's not concerned with the process.
The former Alabama guard said he trusts his agent to have his best interests in mind when negotiating with the team, which allows him to continue to mentally prepare for his rookie season with the Falcons.
"I've got a good agent," said Johnson. "He's going to do what's best for me. I know he's fighting for me on that front. He's told me many times to just focus on football and he'll do the rest. I have faith in him that he'll do the best things for me."
Johnson also said the downtime as a rookie in the NFL is dramatically different from being a player in college. With more time on his hands, he acknowledged that it would be easy to fall out of shape, but admitted he believes that discipline is what separates the best from everyone else.
"It's going to be tough, but I think what separates the professionals from everybody else is to be able to keep that sharp mind and still stay in contact with football, while preparing for a long season," said Johnson. "That's a big adjustment I'm making and I'm going to do everything in my power to get it done."
Ryan maturing entering third season
Third-year QB Matt Ryan spent much of his offseason watching film; however a lot of it wasn't his own.
"I know Matt's spent a number of hours looking at some of the best quarterbacks in this league, studying them," said Smith. "I think that'll benefit him as well."
Watching what makes quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees so successful showed Ryan areas he can improve, and a plan was set into motion to continue his progress toward membership in that elite and exclusive club.
"I think the offseason emphasis for Matt has been on improving his accuracy and improving his decision making," said Smith. "I think that's what all the elite quarterbacks in this league do. They are very accurate and they make good decisions. I think it's a maturation process that Matt's going through. He's seen about everything that can be thrown at him now through two years and it's just a matter of processing of all that."
With OTAs in the books, Ryan said he'll use the downtime between now and training camp to turn on video of only himself. The quarterback, who was sharp throughout all offseason activities, plans to examine how well he applied his learnings from film study of other quarterbacks and his technique in minicamp and OTAs.
"Really as we get closer to training camp, I kind of put a greater microscope on myself and try to make sure that my details are taken care of so that when I get to training camp, I can continue to improve," said Ryan.
Stars in the making
Two members of the Falcons' secondary may be preparing for a career after football.
Cornerback Chevis Jackson and safety Thomas DeCoud share more than just an agent. Their desire to be TV personalities (with the help of their agent) led to a relationship with Comcast Sports South and a show they created, "In the Streets".
A few months ago, they shot a pilot episode that featured the two Falcons around Atlanta talking to its citizens about whatever they deem humorous.
"It's just me and Chevis just out going to different places and asking people funny questions and trying to get a rise out of them," said DeCoud.
The most recent episode is available, which also features a cameo by Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton.
The Falcons conclude their "off-season" training sessions Thursday with a final Organized Team Activity practice in the morning.
It marks the last time the players will be on the field practicing together as a squad until July 30, when Camp Smith, Year Three kicks off at Flowery Branch Headquarters.
The first two weeks of July is informally known around League circles as "the calm before the storm," the final respite before players, coaches and staff members plunge down that first roller coaster hill of the 2010 season.