FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When the Atlanta Falcons opened training camp here Wednesday (July 26) and tried to forget their Super Bowl meltdown, a key issue will be the availability of three key players -- running back Devonta Freeman, wide receiver Julio Jones and their top draft pick, defensive end Takkarist McKinley.
McKinley, counted on as a pass rusher, will be limited at first as he recovers from March surgery on a torn labrum. He is expected back in four to six weeks.
The team is monitoring Jones' recovery from a March 6 procedure on his left foot. Jones said last month when "training camp comes, we'll definitely be rolling."
But general manager Thomas Dimitroff prefers to be cautious.
"Julio, he's healed up very, very well," Dimitroff said. "He's such a focused guy. We're ready for him to jump into camp. I don't know the exact rep count. ... I think he's one of those guys right now that is really fired up about coming back, because the spring was not as active. You know him. He's so competitive. He wants to get out on the field."
The Freeman situation needs to be healed at the negotiation table. The Falcons are under no obligation to extend Freeman, set to make $1.8 million heading into the final year of his rookie contract. He could then be franchise tagged for the next two seasons.
But the Falcons took part in some "good-faith" negotiations. A modest to very generous increase is expected, but the team owns most of the chips like most teams do in NFL negotiations. Freeman's agent was in town negotiating, but left Wednesday without agreement.
Freeman watched closely as Pittsburgh was not able to reach a long-term deal with running back Le'Veon Bell, who is set to play for the $12.12 million franchise tag.
It doesn't appear any player will be placed on the physically unable to perform list, but that's not guaranteed. Some of the other players back from injuries include Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant (pectoral), wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (lower leg), wide receiver Devin Fuller (shoulder), linebacker Kemal Ishmael (shoulder), and defensive linemen Derrick Shelby (Achilles) and Adrian Clayborn (biceps).
In addition, free-agent defensive tackle Dontari Poe earned a $125,000 bonus for reporting to camp at 330 pounds or less.
Top Summer Battle
--The battle royale of training camp will be between Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland for the starting right-guard position. The Falcons need a replacement for Chris Chester, who elected to retire during the offseason. Quinn has declared Schweitzer and Garland as the top contenders.
The Falcons drafted Sean Harlow in the fourth round and have converted the former Oregon State tackle to guard. Last season, Chester won a battle over Schweitzer, who was selected in the seventh round of the 2016 draft. Garland played on offense and defense last season. The competition is considered a toss-up heading into camp. Schweitzer tried to make the switch from college left tackle to guard last season.
"We are excited about where Wes is headed," Quinn said during the offseason.
The Falcons started three rookies last season on defense and have not been afraid to get their young talent on the field. Harlow, whose father, Pat, was the 11th pick in the 1991 draft, by New England, will get a good look, too.
TRAINING CAMP: Atlanta Falcons Training Facility; Flowery Branch, Ga.
HEAD COACH: Dan Quinn
3rd season as Falcons/NFL head coach
21-14 overall; 2-1 postseason
2016 finish: 1st NFC South (11-5)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 415.8 (2nd)
RUSHING: 120.5 (5th)
PASSING: 295.3 (3rd)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 371.2 (25th)
RUSHING: 104.5 (17th)
PASSING: 266.7 (28th)
2017 PRESEASON SCHEDULE
All times Eastern
Aug. 10, at Miami (Thu), 7:00
Aug. 20, at Pittsburgh, 4:00
Aug. 26, ARIZONA (Sat), 7:00
Aug. 31, JACKSONVILLE (Thu), 7:00
Ryan thrived under offensive coordinators Mike Mularkey and Dirk Koetter, when protected, for the first seven seasons of his career. He had a bumpy 2015 season, with a 21-to-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio while adjusting to then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme. With a year under his belt in Shanahan's system, Ryan was nearly flawless in 2016 and guided the franchise to its second Super Bowl appearance since starting play in 1966. Ryan was absolutely dynamic as he threw touchdown passes to 13 receivers. With some pinpoint accuracy, Ryan led the league's top-scoring offense, setting franchise records in passing yards (4,944) and touchdowns (38). He started all 16 games and completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 completion percentage; third in the NFL), with only seven interceptions and a 117.1 passer rating. Schaub returns to serve as his backup.
Freeman is set to make $1.838 million in 2017, but would like a contract extension. The team is not expecting any issues despite rumblings from Freeman's representation that surfaced at the Super Bowl. While the Falcons hope to continue the blend of Freeman and Coleman, they drafted Hill in the fifth round. He must beat out Ward while they attempt to replace fullback Patrick DiMarco with Coleman, a former Seattle standout. Freeman and Coleman combined for 1,599 rushing yards, and 85 receptions, 883 receiving yards and 24 combined touchdowns. Hill is the wild card and perhaps insurance if Freeman's negotiations go off the rails. If Hill turns out to be the player that the Falcons scouted in college, he'll be quite the change-of-pace and perhaps a solution for the team's short-yardage woes.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Austin Hooper. Backups - Levine Toilolo, Joshua Perkins, D.J. Tialavea, Eric Saubert, Darion Griswold.
The Falcons are passing the baton at tight end from Jacob Tamme to Hooper, a second-year player. The Falcons elected not to re-sign Tamme, in part because of Hooper's promise. With Toilolo and Perkins, the tight-end group was productive in 2016, catching 10 touchdowns passes: Tamme (three), Hooper (three), Toilolo (two), Perkins one) and Tialavea (one). In the playoffs, Hooper caught six passes for 65 yards and one touchdown. Toilolo caught three passes for 31 yards. Toilolo will remain a key cog in the run game and in pass protection.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu. Backups - Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Andre Roberts, Reggie Davis, Marvin Hall, Devin Fuller, Nick Williams, Anthony Dable, Deante Burton, Josh Magee.
Despite being slowed by injuries, Jones turned in another spectacular season with 83 catches for 1,409 yards and six touchdown catches. In the playoffs, Jones made 19 catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns. Sanu had a career-high 59 catches for 653 yards and four touchdowns last season. Gabriel had the highest passer rating of any receiver on passes thrown to him in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus' unofficial data. The rating of 148.1 on balls thrown to Gabriel last season was significantly better than the second-best rating of 129.8 on passes to Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan. Gabriel finished with 35 catches for 579 yards and six touchdowns, playing as the No. 3 receiver behind Jones and Sanu. Hardy and Roberts provide quality depth.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Wes Schweitzer, RT Ryan Schraeder. Backups - T Kevin Graf, T Will Freeman, T Daniel Brunskill, T Andreas Knappe, C Ben Garland, C Travis Averill, G Ben Garland, G Marquis Lucas, G Sean Harlow, G Cornelius Edison.
In all 19 games last season, the Falcons started the same offensive line. With the retirement of right guard Chris Chester, there will be a new starter in 2017. Mack, who was named second-team All-Pro, helped the Falcons be Pro Football Focus's sixth-ranked overall offensive line in the NFL last season, grading out as the team's best run blocker and overall offensive lineman. Schraeder was rewarded with a five-year, $32 million contract extension last season. Matthews, who was selected sixth overall in 2014, needs to step up to Pro-Bowl level. They must find a backup swing tackle to replace veteran Tom Compton, who signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Vic Beasley Jr., DT Grady Jarrett, NT Dontari Poe, DRE Adrian Clayborn. Backups - DE Takkarist McKinley, DE Martin Ifedi, DE Jack Crawford, DE Derrick Shelby, DE Chris Odom, DT Courtney Upshaw, DT Taniela Tupou, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, DT Joe Vellano.
Improving the defensive line was the Falcons' highest priority this offseason as they poured $28.5 million into the renovation project. After saying goodbye to former defensive line coach Bryan Cox and hiring Bryant Young, they signed Poe (one year, $8 million) and Crawford (three years, $10.3 million) in free agency and drafted McKinley (four years, $10.2 million). The team elected not to re-sign 12-year veteran Jonathan Babineaux and released veteran Tyson Jackson. With a stouter interior of Poe and Jarrett, the Falcons are hoping that Beasley can build on his breakthrough season in which he led the league in sacks with 15.5. Clayborn can also be a factor in the pass rush.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Kemal Ishmael, MLB Deion Jones, SLB DeVondre Campbell. Backups - Brooks Reed, Jack Lynn, LaRoy Reynolds, Josh Keyes, Duke Riley, Jermaine Grace, J'Terius Jones.
Stardom is predicted for Deion Jones, set to enter his second season in the league. He had a dynamic rookie season and is trying to get more vocal as the team's defensive signal-caller. He also wants to add some weight and play between 230 and 235 this season. Jones led the rookie class with 108 tackles and three interceptions last season. He also had 14 passes defended, which was third-most among rookies. Campbell played 11 games, starting 10. He rang up 48 tackles, seven pass breakups and a pick. Ishamel is making the move from safety and must hold off a challenge from Riley. Reynolds is a quality backup. Grace is another speedy linebacker with a chance to contribute.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Desmond Trufant, RCB Robert Alford, FS Ricardo Allen, SS Keanu Neal. Backups - CB C.J. Goodwin, CB Akeem King, CB Janor Jones, CB Taylor Reynolds, CB Brian Poole, CB Blidi-Wreh-Wilson, CB Damontae Kazee, CB Jalen Collins, CB Deji Olatoye, CB Quincy Mauger, FS Sharrod Neasman, FS Marcelis Branch, SS Kemal Ishmael, SS Jordan Moore, SS Deron Washington.
Collins was forced to start down the stretch last season. With the return of Trufant from pectoral surgery, the Falcons now have some quality depth at the position. Collins slid down the depth chart after he was suspended for the first four games of last season. He started the final six games of the regular season and three playoff games. He played 428 defensive snaps (38.3 percent) during the regular season. He compiled 48 tackles, including 10 in the Super Bowl, 12 pass breakups and two interceptions. With Trufant, Alford, Poole and Collins all seasoned now, the Falcons have some options to mix and match their coverages better. Neal played roughly 83 percent of the team's snaps, third-most on the defense. He played his highest snap percentage (40) at down low at linebacker level, according to Pro Football Focus' unofficial data. Neal is expecting more of the same with some additional middle-of-the-field duties. Allen made the transition from cornerback to free safety. He played 1,101 defensive snaps (99.1 percent), most on the team last season, in just his second year at free safety. Drafted as a cornerback in the fifth round of the 2014 draft out of Purdue, Allen was cut and then made his way back to the roster from the practice squad.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Bryant, K Mike Meyer, P Matt Bosher, LS Josh Harris, KOR Andre Roberts, PR Andre Roberts.
When the Falcons elected not to re-sign Eric Weems, that created at least three openings on the special-teams units. Weems, a former Pro Bowler, was a coverage player, and the punt and kickoff returner. Roberts signed in free agency and will get the first shot at kickoff and punt returner jobs. Roberts averaged 22.2 yards on kickoff returns and 11.7 on punt returns with two touchdowns last season for Detroit. Meyer is a player to watch just because Bryant turned 42. Bosher is back as a weapon on kickoffs and with his superior directional punting skills.