FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan had several good reasons to show up early for his first trip to Atlanta Falcons headquarters in five months.
The two-time Pro Bowl quarterback was eager to catch up with teammates he hadn’t seen during the NFL lockout, watch some film and spend a few minutes with his new position coach, Bob Bratkowski.
It had been four long months of waiting for Ryan and his teammates, but they finally feel like full-time, professional football players again.
“We put in a lot of hard work this offseason as players,” Ryan said Tuesday. “I know that the coaches put in a lot of hard work this offseason as well. I just wanted the opportunity to kind of talk to them about some things. (Showing up early) wasn’t intentional or anything. I was just kind of like a kid on Christmas morning.”
Despite the league’s longest work stoppage since 1987, Atlanta players believe the team is prepared to begin training camp Friday without any major glitches.
The core of last year’s team and all of its elite players return with no reports of major injuries. But the Falcons, who ended last season with a crushing home playoff loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay, know they’re far from complete.
Schedules are tight. Training camp begins Friday, and all players must report the day before. Undrafted and “street” free-agent signings are moving at a furious pace as Atlanta tries to get the maximum-allowed 90 players in camp, a number that will be whittled down to 53 by the week of the regular-season opener in Chicago on Sept. 11.
“We’re trying to cram a lot of things we missed into a few weeks,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “It’s going to be tough, man, but they don’t call us professionals for nothing. We’ve got to be professional about this situation. Spend a lot of time in the meeting room, something a lot of vets don’t really like to do, but it’s going to be needed if we’re going to get those young guys up to speed with what we’re trying to do as a team.”
Offensively, Ryan joins Pro Bowl selections Roddy White at wide receiver, Michael Turner at running back and tight end Tony Gonzalez, the NFL’s career leader at the position. Rookie Julio Jones, the No. 6 overall draft pick, could replace starting receiver Michael Jenkins.
The offensive line might lose three starters while unrestricted free agents Tyson Clabo (right tackle) and guards Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock consider offers from other teams. Brian Finneran, a Falcons receiver since 2000, was told by general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith after the season that he will not be offered a new contract;
Defensively, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, right end John Abraham, tackle Jonathan Babineaux and Robinson, who anchors the right side of the secondary, are standouts in a lineup that returns 10 starters. Left cornerback Brent Grimes signed a one-year contract tender as a restricted free agent in February, but hopes for a long-term deal after earning the Pro Bowl spot Green Bay’s Charles Woodson declined.
Strongside linebacker Mike Peterson, a 12-year veteran who started the last two years in Atlanta, wants to re-sign.
On special teams, kicker Matt Bryant is a priority to re-sign, but punter Michael Koenen could be on his way out as a restricted free agent. Return specialist and Pro Bowl selection Eric Weems will be back.
“I think everybody is excited to finally get back to work and have all of this stuff behind us at this point,” Ryan said. “We can focus on what it is that we like to focus on, and that’s playing football and trying to play at a high level.”
Ryan, who organized and led 7-on-7 drills for six weeks at nearby Buford High School, has other reasons to be excited, most notably an $11.25 million bonus he’s due Friday that honors the terms of a six-year contract he signed as the NFL’s No. 3 overall draft pick in May 2008.
He insists, however, that his concerns are far more about football than lifestyle. Last season, despite unseating the New Orleans Saints as NFC South champions, the Falcons ended their season in disappointment.
That setback continues to fuel Ryan, a self-described consumer of game film who says he’s spent much of his down time breaking down his skills and those of his opponents.
“Really the only thing that changed for me this offseason is where we did our work and that you weren’t able to speak with your coaches.” Ryan said.
“Other than that, my preparation was exactly the same, with some changes here and there because you change every offseason. I watched a lot of film and studied things that I need to improve on. I have a clear set of goals going into camp.”