Flowery Branch, Ga. --When the Atlanta Falcons took the field on Wednesday for the second day of the 2010 OTAs they noticed a difference right away.
The practice fields, normally running perpendicular to the team's facility, were running parallel in an effort to encourage grass growing in prepartion for the tough July and August months.
The team is also seeing a difference in the performance of many of the team's third-year players.
Matt Ryan, Sam Baker, Curtis Lofton, Kroy Biermann, and Thomas DeCoud, all members of the 2008 draft class, are expected to continue their maturation and take their games to a new level as major contributors to the 2010 Atlanta Falcons.
14-year veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez believes the third year is when the pieces in a player's performance begin to fall into place.
Gonzalez said on Wednesday that he believes the offense can have a big year, but he's expecting exciting things out of the defense with the addition of cornerback Dunta Robinson and with so many key players entering their third seasons.
"Usually that third year is when it all clicks for you," said Gonzalez. "That's when there's really no excuse at that point. You've had a chance to go out there and play. You've started last year in your second year and now you're in that comfort zone. It doesn't matter which side of the ball you're on. That's where you start to hit your peak as a player and we have a lot of those type of guys on the defense right now."
The tight end believes his quarterback is primed for a major step forward in what has already been a promising career. Ryan, after starting all 16 games and one playoff game in his rookie season, missed two games with a toe injury last season, but is healthy and looks, in the eyes of Gonzalez, poised to take the next step.
"I always said with Matt it's not if, just when," Gonzalez said. "It's up to him and us around him to make sure that that learning curve is accelerated. He has all the talent in the world. Mentally it's a no-brainer for him. It's just getting that comfort zone and getting that experience and confidence. All that stuff plays a big part of it. That takes time. That's why they say the third year is the year that it all comes together for you at least it's supposed to. I've got big plans for Matt this year and I think he's going to have a great year."
If the learning curves stay on the current trajectory, many of the junior-year Falcons could be the key to Atlanta setting a new franchise record and completely washing away the past: three consecutive back-to-back winning seasons.
Only one personal goal for Turner in 2010
Following a banner year in 2008 that saw Michael Turner rush for 1,699 yards and set a franchise single-season record for touchdowns in a season (17), the running back struggled in 2009 to return to form.
An ankle injury forced Turner to miss five of the final seven games of the season. In the two games he did appear in, he only managed 40 rushing yards and no touchdowns.
Turner's '09 season wasn't a complete lost cause; he still turned in 871 yards, 10 touchdowns, and an average of 4.9 yards per carry, but those totals were far from what he expected out of himself.
Head Coach Mike Smith recently shared that he believes Turner's long 2008 season that included a playoff run and a trip to the Pro Bowl shortened his running back's offseason and down time.
A slimmed down Turner has returned to Atlanta this year with an offseason to clear his head and find his 2008 form.
Turner said on Wednesday that his only goal for this season is to stay healthy, believing the contributions he knows he can bring will come if he's on the field.
"I just want to be here for all 16 games at least and take it from there," Turner said.
Praise for Moore
Most NFL gurus attribute the expected improvement of the Falcons defense in 2010 to the acquisition of CB Dunta Robinson and the bolstering of the outside linebacker spot in the draft. But those close to the team will tell you second-year safety William Moore could have a major impact in 2010.
Moore missed most of the 2009 season after undergoing knee surgery in training camp and battling through a nagging hamstring pull before being placed on Injured Reserve in late October.
Coach Smith made a point to single out Moore after Wednesday's session.
"I think the defensive back group as a whole is going to be the most watched this offseason," Smith said. "We were very interested to see how William Moore came out and practiced," Smith said. "He's practiced very well for the first two days."
Anyone that spends much time watching Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White knows he'll say what's on his mind.
On Wednesday he gave the gathered media a forecast regarding his quarterback, Matt Ryan.
"I'm making a prediction: Pro Bowl," the two-time Pro Bowler said. "I think he's capable of doing that and this is going to be the year that puts him over the top. Thirty touchdown passes and things like that. I think if we keep improving and he keeps doing his thing and getting better he'll be a Pro Bowl quarterback this year."
Tony Gonzalez knows his quarterback can play on a Pro Bowl level, but offered up a summation of what he thinks this year's team is capable of, specifically on offense.
Gonzalez referenced the 2003 Kansas City Chiefs, a team he was a member of and a team that finished second in the NFL in total offense. A performance like that, he believes, could take the Falcons where they want to go...a place he wasn't afraid to mention.
I think on paper, right now, this is probably the best team I've ever been on," he said. "It's exciting to know that we can go out there and accomplish some big things this year. When I say that, I'm thinking Super Bowl and why would I think any other way? Especially at this point in my career and with the talent level that we have on this team we can go far this year if we want to and work the right way."
Injuries and Attendance
Coach Smith said after today's morning practice session that three players rehabbing from recent surgeries - DL Jonathan Babineaux, DE Chauncey Davis and rookie WR Kerry Meier - could be back in action within "the next seven to ten days."
While attendance for today's OTA session was voluntary, only two players were not at the facility: DE John Abraham and rookie CB Dominique Franks. Both were accounted for and the coaching staff was aware of their absences ahead of time.