July marks the beginning of the Atlanta Falcons’ 2008 preseason, as official training camp begins July 25 and runs through August 15 at the team’s Flowery Branch headquarters. Once again, the Falcons must start from scratch in what seems like a constant rebuilding process. This year looks to be off to a better start with the signing of former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith and new general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who arrives from the New England Patriots organization. On the offensive side of the ball, new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey looks to install a smash-style offense focused on the run game, while new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder looks to execute a 4-3 attacking defensive scheme with zone coverages and creative blitz packages.

On the offensive side of the ball, newly drafted quarterback Matt Ryan will try to beat out last year’s holdovers Chris Redman and Joey Harrington for the starting quarterback job. Free agent acquisition running back Michael Turner will finally get his first shot as an NFL starter, and he will look to share touches with the ever-explosive Jerious Norwood. The offensive line appears to have a whole new look under line coach Paul Boudreau. Last year, starting left tackle Wayne Gandy was released in the offseason and Sam Baker was drafted as the heir apparent’s replacement. The wide receiver group looks to use veteran Joe Horn, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins in a more controlled passing game and the tight ends will be used primarily to provide run game help first and foremost. The losses of Warrick Dunn and longtime Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler will hamper the team in the early part of the season, but as the new generation of Falcon players is brought in, things should slowly improve.

On the defensive side of the ball, disgruntled cornerback DeAngelo Hall will be sorely missed, having been traded to the Oakland Raiders in the off-season. This leaves the Falcons without a true closing corner in the secondary. Safety Chris Crocker also left and was replaced by Erik Coleman, who should be a slight upgrade at free safety and cornerback Von Hutchins should compete for a starting job. The defensive line seems to have a little more talent with the Falcons signing Rashad Moore and Simon Fraser in the off-season, while defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead should also contribute. Defensive tackle Rod Coleman was sent packing and will be sorely missed after new bosses deemed him a major health issue. The linebacking staff will miss versatile starter Demorrio Williams, who was lost in free agency and veteran middle linebacker Keith Brooking could be replaced at the starting job by rookie linebacker Curtis Lofton, whom the Falcons drafted in the second round. Lofton was a solid linebacker for most of his college career at Oklahoma, but was moved to the middle linebacker job late in his final season with the Sooners. Star linebacker Michael Boley rounds out arguably the brightest positional group the Falcons have on defense and will look to the core linebackers to control the defense.

Special teams seems to be driven by placekicker Jason Elam, who is looking to end his excellent career closer to home. Kicker Michael Koenen, who finished the 2007 season with a net punting average of 38.8 yards per kick, returns this season. He punted 80 times in 2007 and placed 30-of-20 kicks. Koenen continues to add versatility to the special teams pool with the ability to handle kickoffs and long field goals if necessary. Veteran long snapper Mike Schneck also returns to the team in 2008. Wide receiver Adam Jennings was last season’s top punt returner and was given work at the position during minicamp along with running back Jerious Norwood and cornerback Brent Grimes. Norwood returns as the team’s top kickoff return specialist, but new Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff expressed hope that rookie running back Thomas Brown could contribute in that role.

In closing, it should be a refreshing rebuilding process now that last season’s Michael Vick, DeAngelo Hall and Bobby Petrino drama is behind the Falcons franchise. The Falcons will do a great job of stealing six wins in 2008, with four wins being a more realistic goal. Head coach Mike Smith will use the majority of the 2008 season to form a core group of players he can build around and the development of first-round pick Matt Ryan to provide some ups and downs throughout the season. Ball control on offense and stopping the big play defense will be the biggest challenges for the 2008 Falcons, but the franchise is definitely moving in the right direction and could compete for a wild card spot in the 2009 season.

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