On the surface, the Atlanta Falcons was one of the most straightforward and uneventful teams for a new season of HBO’s Hard Knocks. However, an eventful offseason and a chance to improve on a disappointing 2013 season will help add some spice to the show.
For those unfamiliar with the team, here are eight things to watch for when Hard Knocks returns on Tuesday:
1. Rookie Rundown
The transition from the college ranks to the NFL is a big one. Many players struggle to adjust to the speed and physicality of the professional game. After a rough 2013 season, the Falcons were in a position to take arguably the most pro-ready player available, OT Jake Matthews of Texas A&M, son of hall-of-fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews. Jake’s journey will undoubtedly be a highlight for the show, despite playing a sometimes unrecognized position on the field.
Defensive rookies Ra’shede Hegeman, Dezman Southward, Prince Shembo, Tyler Starr, and others also have major adjustments to make, now playing against top caliber players. Atlanta was 29th in the league last year in sacks, posting only 32 in total. Their struggles to get to the quarterback made a huge impact on their draft selections and should be a focus in training camp.
2. Wide Receiver Corps
Superstar Julio Jones is returning from a foot fracture, Roddy White recently secured a new contract, and Harry Douglas remains a breakout candidate. Assuming they can all stay healthy,the trio remain among the best groups at the position in the league. How much we see of Jones will give some insight to how soon he’ll be ready to come back at full strength. All three are known to be outspoken in and outside of the practice facilities and should provide some humor for Hard Knocks.
3. Tougher in the Trenches
The biggest issues for the Falcons last season came from the offensive and defensive lines. Neither side of the ball was tough enough to keep games competitive. The o-line was pushed around too easily, allowing too many sacks, allowing the 10th most in the league. Furthermore, lanes for aging RB Steven JAckson were almost non-existent. The team addressed the issue by drafting Matthews and adding free agent Jon Asamoah. Keep an eye on the line to see how they come together as a group.
Defensively, Hegeman was added in the draft and the team also signed Paul Soliai from Miami, Osi Umenyiora from New York, and Tyson Jackson from Kansas City. The revitalization of the line should add to their 2014 sack totals, bringing a massive amount of talent and strength to a group in need of a drastic change. Losing Sean Weatherspoon to IR means a gap at the LB position that will desperately need to be filled, making for a very interesting camp battle.
4. Matty Ice
Matt Ryan is one of the top, middling quarterbacks in the NFL. While his regular seasons have been in the top of the league, he has consistently turned in poor performances in the playoffs. He finally led his team to a victory in the 2012 playoffs, though he still threw two interceptions that game. His calm demeanor gives the impression of a dull personality. Hard Knocks will give fans a chance to see a (hopefully) more exciting site of Ryan. His leadership will be on full display, as will his much-discussed work ethic. How much that rubs off on teammates will be a telling sign for Atlanta’s success in 2014.
5. Loss of a Hall-of-Famer
Tight-end Tony Gonzalez finally hung up the cleats this year, posting incredible numbers for Falcons after being traded several years ago. Now, the team is left with unproven and unknown players at the position. For such a major part of the offense, it remains to be seen how they will replace the production at the TE position.
6. Rebound Year
With expectation set on contention, the Falcons posted a disappointing 4-12 record last season. Now, with new additions to the team and cameras present, the feeling seems to be that contention is back on the table. How the veterans and newcomers alike respond to the past season and look toward the upcoming season’s prospects will be very telling. The NFC South is a packed division, with Carolina, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay also all set to be very competitive in 2014. How the coaching staff changes schemes to better compete in today’s NFL will be a major storyline.
7. Coaching Styles
Even after several years of great success, some fans called for the firing of head coach Mike Smith after last year’s collapse. Smith has coached the team since 2008 and last year was his first losing season as head coach. On the sidelines, Smith is a stoic presence. Perhaps it’s a different story on the practice field. How does he inspire his players? Let’s hope he shows more than a singular facial expression during his time on camera.
8. Running Game
Last offseason, Atlanta signed aging St. Louis RB Steven Jackson to replace aging RB Michael Turner. The move appeared to be a boost to an offense already filled with weapons. However, Jackson battled injuries all year, and when he was on the field, it appeared as though very little remains in the tank. Career backup Jacquizz Rodgers and newly drafted Devonta Freeman will battle in camp for additional snaps, with Rodgers having the upperhand in both experience and ability.
Keep an eye on how much work they give Jackson in camp and the amount of burst/speed he’s able to provide after a full offseason of rest. At the age of 31, Jackson is clearly on the backend of his career, but he may still be able to pull out another year or two of productivity before facing retirement. His leadership will play a key role during practice sessions.
Hard Knocks Season 9 premieres on August 5th.