FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons won’t be easing their way into this season.
Not after what happened a year ago.
Coming off a dismal 4-12 record – their first losing mark since 2007 – the Falcons opened training camp Friday eager to show it won’t happen again.
“I’d like to see the intensity level from day one be much higher than what it’s been in the past,” coach Mike Smith said. “I think everybody understands there’s a sense of urgency in what we want to accomplish.”
Heeding that admonition, first-round pick Jake Matthews – expected to move right in as a starter on Atlanta’s beleaguered offensive line – got into a scuffle with defensive end Kroy Biermann about 90 minutes into practice.
The teammates were quickly separated, but that’s the sort of feistiness Smith wants to see throughout camp.
There was also a bit of a distraction just a few hours before the first practice.
The Falcons unexpectedly waived second-year receiver Darius Johnson, who made a surprising contribution after star Julio Jones went down with the a season-ending injury. An undrafted rookie, Johnson wound up playing in 10 games, including two starts, and finished with 22 receptions for 210 yards and a touchdown.
Smith would not discuss why Johnson was let go right before camp, but it opens up some competition for the fifth receiver slot behind Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and newcomer Devin Hester.
On a more positive note, Jones took part in the first practice after recovering from a broken bone in his right foot – the same bone he broke during his college career.
Jones was held out of offseason drills and will only be practicing every other day during camp, all in hopes of making sure he is at full speed for the Sept. 7 opener against New Orleans.
But the Falcons were clearly bolstered by No. 11’s return.
“He was running routes very well,” Smith said. “We have a prescription we’re going to try to stand by the first couple of weeks and then make an evaluation after that. But it was great to see Julio back on the field.”
The Falcons took care of some important business the previous day, completing a four-year contract extension with receiver Roddy White. The deal, reported to be worth up to $30 million, takes White a step closer to spending his entire career with the Falcons.
The 32-year-old was heading into the final year of his contract before agreeing to the extension, which is expected to clear some additional salary cap space.
White battled a high ankle sprain much of last season, missing games for the first time in his career, but a strong finish showed the team he’s still one of the league’s best receivers.
“I always had faith in them and they’ve got faith in me,” White said. “It was just working out numbers and getting the right thing done so I can be here long term.”
Jones and White will have to carry the bulk of the receiving load now that tight end Tony Gonzalez has moved to the television studio.
Gonzalez retired after making 83 catches for 859 yards and eight touchdowns in his final season, the sort of numbers that aren’t expected out of his successor, second-year player Levine Toilolo.
“It’s a little different without (Gonzalez) out there,” White said. “His ability to get open, catch balls and stuff like that. Harry is going to have to make a lot of plays on the inside, and Devin is going to have to contribute and help us out.”
Much of the attention in training camp will be on the offensive line, which was downright atrocious last season. Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times and the Falcons ranked last in the league in rushing.
Looking to get bigger and stronger, Atlanta drafted Matthews with the sixth overall pick and signed free agent Jon Asamoah, who will take over a guard position.
“We’ve got to keep the push up the middle off our quarterback,” Smith said.
While acknowledging they can’t go through another season like the last, the Falcons don’t want to dismiss all the success they had before that – five straight winning seasons, two division titles, and nearly reaching the Super Bowl just two seasons ago.
“I can’t tell you irrevocably that last year was an aberration,” offensive guard Justin Blalock said. “But we know how to play ball around here. We know how our program works. We’re not going to just completely throw all that out the window because of one season.”