It's that time of year again. Training camp has started, and the Falcons are once again primed to begin another promising season.
And yet, there's also a sense of urgency. As there well should be.
This is, after all, a team that has been to the playoffs three times since Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith took over in 2008. Three trips to the postseason, three one-and-done appearances. Frustration at its finest.
This is a veteran team, one that knows how to take care of business each week in the regular season. But is the 2012 edition of the Atlanta Falcons the one finally poised to make a deep playoff run? Only time will tell. Training camp will only give us a few glimpses of what's to come.
But in the meantime, I have provided you all with some food for thought to tide your football appetites over until the real football actually begins. Screw round numbers, like five or ten. We've got twelve camp questions for 2012.
1- Can Peter Konz seize a starting job?
I'm not going to say "win the job," because that is expected. The Falcons used their second-rounder and first pick in the draft of Konz for a reason. The offensive line became last year's scapegoat, and was clearly the weak link in Atlanta's playoff loss to the Giants last January. They needed an impact player.
Hopefully, they've already found one. Barring a disaster, Konz should be the starting right guard come week one. But what I'd much rather see is Konz have a strong showing in camp, play well during the preseason and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Falcons were right to spend their top pick on him.
And there is no reason that shouldn't happen. Konz is very seasoned for a college player who's toughest competition includes Mike Johnson, who's health is constantly an issue, and Vince Manuwai, who spent the 2011 season out of football altogether. The door is wide open for Atlanta's top rookie.
2- Can Akeem Dent hold his own as a starter?
As we already know, Lofa Tatupu will miss the entire 2012 season after a nasty pectoral injury. That makes Dent the de facto starter going into camp.
I go into more detail elsewhere, but suffice it to say that, unlike Konz, Dent won't be expected to march onto the field and turn heads or anything. If he can show competence playing on the first two downs and comfort in Mike Nolan's new scheme, he should be the team's starting middle linebacker.
But fear not: with three perfectly capable cornerbacks on the roster, the Falcons need not send Dent out there on third down more than a handful of times. Which leads me to...
3- Will Asante Samuel be the impact player the Falcons are hoping for?
Sure, the price to acquire Samuel was cheap (a seventh-round draft pick), but he's also playing on a new three-year, $18.5M contract. That's not pocket change.
If Samuel can come in and continue to be the same player that's recorded 19 interceptions over the last three seasons
4- How will Bradie Ewing handle being the team's new fullback?
The Falcons' fifth-round pick will be taking over Ovie Mughelli, a stalwart of Atlanta's rushing attack for the past six seasons. As he was no doubt one of the best in the game up until his injury, Ewing has no easy task in filling shoes.
While he will potentially share some of his duties with Jason Snelling and perhaps even Mike Cox at first, there's no doubt that Mike Smith intends to put his run blocking abilities to good use this year. You don't just draft a fullback in the fifth round unless you expect him to see some significant time.
He'll be playing alongside his college teammate Konz, so there's at least that degree of familiarity. Given how much the Falcons have favored that inside running game with Michael Turner these past three years, we should see both players have quite an impact. Hopefully Ewing's transition is as seamless as possible.
5- Who will emerge as Atlanta's new kick return ace?
Eric Weems' free agency departure left a pretty big hole in the kick returning department.
As it stands, the Falcons have several players that could see some time during camp and the preseason, but ultimately the battle is wide open.
Both Dominique Franks and Harry Douglas have experience handling both kick and punt return duties. Additionally, you have lesser known guys like Antone Smith, Kevin Cone and James Rodgers who could also push for the job. As it stands, this battle's a free-for-all, and we probably won't see much clarity before preseason's end.
6- Has Julio Jones sufficiently progressed since last season?
Despite posting an impressive stat sheet, Julio had a surprisingly quiet rookie season when you think about it. Injuries and a touch of inconsistency certainly had something to do with it. Still, 54 catches for just under 1000 yards is nothing to shake your fist at, either.
Several pundits have already named Jones as their "breakout" player for 2012, and I find myself agreeing. He'll have a full offseason to work with the coaching staff, refine his route timing with Matt Ryan, and learn the nuances of Dirk Koetter's new offensive scheme.
If he stays healthy, there's no doubt in my mind that Julio can be one of the top receivers in the league this year.
7- Can Sam Baker show us he's ready to bounce back from a disappointing 2011 campaign?
There were more than a few groans when Mike Smith announced that Baker was still his starter. But if you chalk up a majority of his sub-par play to the back injury he had corrected with surgery this offseason, then perhaps there is reason to be optimistic.
The next few weeks should give us a glimpse of whether he's finally back at full health or if we could be seeing even more Will Svitek than last season.
8- Will Corey Peters be healthy for the regular season?
He is expected to miss at least three more weeks after sustaining some type of foot injury earlier in the offseason. Given that he's been quite impressive as a starter at defensive tackle, this will definitely be something worth monitoring as camp progresses.
Peria Jerry and Vance Walker, while both good options in Smith's rotating defensive front, can't really be considered "reliable starters" at this point. Peters' return will be key for the Falcons.
9- Who will make the team at wide receiver?
The starters are pretty much set with Roddy White, Julio and Douglas all returning this season. But beyond that, it's something of a mystery.
The two favorites in my mind would be Kerry Meier and Kevin Cone, but the Falcons have also added a host of intriguing undrafted free agents to the roster this offseason. The shifty James Rodgers, little brother of our own Jacquizz, and the big-bodied Michael Calvin out of Cal are also two names that stick out to me.
But with so many names at receiver, the last couple of spots really are up for grabs. They should all see their fair share of snaps during camp.
10- Could there actually be a position battle at safety?
It's a fair question. Thomas DeCoud is the projected starter at free safety, but don't count out free agent signing Chris Hope either.
Hope was a mainstay of the Titans defense, starting for five seasons and making the Pro Bowl in 2008 before taking a backseat to Jordan Babineaux last year. Though DeCoud only just recently signed an extension with the Falcons, don't be surprised to see Hope push for time should DeCoud falter.
And in addition you have Shann Schillinger and Charles Mitchell, both sixth-round draft picks vying for a roster spot. I'd be surprised to see both players crack the 53-man roster, so they'll be worth keeping an eye on as well.
11- Will we see another impact tight end break away from the pack?
Tony Gonzalez is the starter. We know that. But last season gave way to a new trend: having two downfield receiving threats at tight end. Are the Falcons capable of following suit?
Beyond Gonzalez, there are a host of unproven players and depth questions at tight end. Michael Palmer, Tommy Gallarda, Marquez Branson and UGA's Aron White are among those competing for the same roster spots. Perhaps camp will give rise to the eventual successor to Gonzalez.
12- Will Matt Ryan be ready?
Everyone knows he's ready. This shouldn't even be a question, except that I needed twelve to make the title work.