ATLANTA FALCONS (11-7)
OPEN CAMP: July 27, Falcons practice facility, Flowery Branch, Georgia
LAST YEAR: One year after reaching Super Bowl, Falcons finished third in NFC South and lost to Philadelphia in second round of playoffs. Quarterback Matt Ryan, working under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian, had decline in production from 2016, when team led NFL in scoring. Ryan still signed five-year, $150 million deal in offseason. Good news is young defense, led by speedy linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, allowed 318.4 yards per game, significant drop from 371.2 in 2016.
CAMP NEEDS: Spotlight will be on WR Julio Jones after team announced it won’t renegotiate his current $71.5 million contract. Jones has three years remaining in five-year deal. Jones did not attend minicamp, and training camp holdout could be major distraction to ”brotherhood” atmosphere promoted by coach Dan Quinn. Defensive front will be concern following losses of Poe and Clayborn. Senat could have opportunity for immediate playing time, if not starting role. Ridley needs to prove he can handle No. 3 receiver spot behind Jones and Mohamed Sanu and be ready for even bigger role.
EXPECTATIONS: Ryan is 33, Jones is 29, RB Devonta Freeman had two concussions, including one in preseason, and knee injury last season, and RB Tevin Coleman could be free agent after this season. These are all alarm signals as window for current offense is narrowing. While young defense is emerging as team’s strength, Atlanta’s offense needs to re-emerge in second season with Sarkasian if team can have real hope for second Super Bowl appearance in three years. Addition of Fusco should add more stability to interior offensive line. Competitive NFC South doesn’t lessen expectations. Anything less than 10 wins and another postseason would be disappointment.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL