The Atlanta Falcons open 2020 NFL training camp on July 28 at their training facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Here’s a closer look at a few storylines:
Will running back Todd Gurley be a major factor in the offense despite concerns about his left knee?
The Falcons certainly hope that is the case after signing the former University of Georgia star to a one-year, $5.5 million contract. Gurley might not be the same player he was in 2017 when he was NFL Offensive Player of the Year, but he’s got a chip on his shoulder after being released by the Rams.
"Each year, you gotta prove yourself,” Gurley said. “It don't matter if you made All-Pro or a Pro Bowl the year before ... don't nobody care about what you do in this league; you gotta prove yourself each week; you gotta prove yourself each year.”
Gurley, 25, pointed to playing in 15 games last season as evidence he’ll be just fine, and he believes folks should stop focusing on a surgical procedure that happened six years ago. Whatever the case, the Falcons have to monitor Gurley’s workload going into the season -- and perhaps even during the season -- to make sure he is as a fresh as possible to be effective in Dirk Koetter’s offense.
Gurley (6-foot-1, 224 pounds) has the size to run with power and enough speed to get by defenders. He might not be the ideal back in the passing game, but Gurley’s track record of 55 career rushing touchdowns in the red zone shows he can be a serious threat. And he won’t have to carry all the load with Brian Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison all expected to contribute. As a group, the Falcons have to improve on last year’s 30th-ranked rushing offense (85.1 yards per game). The offensive line has to do its part, too -- particularly if the Falcons get back to the wide zone that Gurley was accustomed to with the Rams.
Absolutely. Ridley’s name continues to come up in the national discussion about breakout candidates for 2020 and potential fantasy standouts. The buzz surrounding Ridley became even louder with a viral video of Ridley’s offseason route running, a clip that even caught MVP Lamar Jackson's eye.
Through 29 career games, Ridley has 17 touchdowns and an average of 13.3 yards per reception while amassing 1,687 receiving yards and 86 first downs. Naturally, the veteran Jones is the primary focus in the passing game as arguably the best wide receiver in the game, but Ridley’s emergence puts that much more stress on opposing defensive coordinators. Ridley’s offseason workouts have been relentless.
“Calvin, he’s been working extremely hard,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “He looks great. And he’s been putting in a ton of extra time throughout this offseason. We’ve spent a ton of time together.”
Anyone who has attended a Falcons practice over the past couple years has seen how hard Ridley works on the Jugs machine before and after trying to perfect his craft. Former receivers coach Raheem Morris, now the team’s defensive coordinator, wanted Ridley to improve his deep inside breaking routes because of his catch-and-run ability, and Ridley did exactly that. Ridley’s speed, route running and passion make him a great threat.
The team has already hyped the speedy Sheffield as a potential No. 1 corner even though Sheffield could play inside a lot in the nickel package. They invested a first-round draft pick in Terrell, a rookie from Clemson who who has all the traits with great size, length and 4.4 speed, but he had a rough go against LSU receivers in the national championship game. Oliver has shown improvement, yet has strides to make.
Morris made the switch from coaching receivers to working with corners last season, and it helped spark a turnaround in the second half of the season. Now it’s up to Morris to put Sheffield, Oliver and Terrell in the best positions to make plays and create turnovers. They should all be on the field in the nickel package, with Terrell and Oliver likely outside, and perhaps Terrell and Sheffield on the edges in the base package.
Veteran Blidi Wreh-Wilson adds versatility and experience to the mix. In the NFC South alone, the three young corners will have to face tough challenges in wide receivers Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and DJ Moore. Morris should have them ready, but don’t be surprised if a veteran is added to the mix during camp.
The other key to establishing the trio of corners will be alleviating some of the pressure on them by enhancing the pass rush, particularly with the additions of established rusher Dante Fowler Jr. and promising rookie lineman Marlon Davidson.
With Ryan taking more initiative as a leader off the field this offseason, could that benefit the Falcons even more on the field in a pivotal year for coach Dan Quinn?
Absolutely. Ryan has taken a strong stance on social issues following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. He donated $500,000 toward a $2 million fundraiser to help support the Black community in Atlanta during these difficult times. He plans to help establish a committee that will meet regularly and keep the discussion on issues such as racial injustice and police brutality ongoing.
“I think a lot of people -- white people -- don’t know the right things to say or how to say them, and I’m included. But I feel like with the platform that I have, this is my way to speak in and say, ‘I want to help and I’m here to listen,’" Ryan told ESPN.
Teammates such as fellow captain Ricardo Allen have praised Ryan for speaking up and being sensitive toward the treatment of minorities. “For [Ryan] to show the support and that he’s got love, it’s really just an acknowledgement that he understands,” Allen said. “I can’t expect him to fully feel what it feels like to grow up in the hood or what it truly feels like to be a Black man in America, but for him to actually take that stance and let us know that he feels us, I appreciate that.”
Julio Jones is the ultimate guy the players look to in the locker room, but Ryan seems to have always had the support of his teammates on the field -- even through back-to-back 7-9 seasons. The primary goal is a return to the Super Bowl, with the colossal collapse against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI still hovering over the franchise like a dark cloud. This is a critical year for Quinn, and owner Arthur Blank already said the playoffs are the standard. The Falcons should go as far as Ryan and the offense take them, as they did during the Super Bowl run in 2016, when the Falcons averaged a league-best 33.8 points per game.