Smith 'amped up' as Falcons enter training camp with raised expectations


FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Arthur Smith revealed a new mustache on the Atlanta Falcons' opening day of training camp.

The coach acknowledged his self-described “lifestyle change” won't win universal approval.

“It’s not for everybody," Smith said Wednesday.

Fans' opinions on the added facial hair could be based on Smith's ability to bring another new look — a winner — to Atlanta.

Smith is facing expectations to end the Falcons' streak of five consecutive losing seasons, including back-to-back 7-10 finishes in his first two seasons. Atlanta lost to New England in the Super Bowl following the 2016 season, finished 10-6 in 2017 and has been stuck below .500 since.

Finally free from salary cap restraints, the Falcons spent about $140 million in free agency to revamp their defense. There could be six new starters on defense when Atlanta opens its season on Sept. 10 against Carolina.

There also is hope that quarterback Desmond Ridder's first full season as a starter, the return to health of tight end Kyle Pitts and the addition of rookie running back Bijan Robinson will boost the offense.

Smith was more than a little excited to get started on Wednesday. He had to apologize for reporting a few minutes late to his news conference before the first practice.

“I was a little amped up and I got a little long in the team meetings,” Smith said.

Ridder was 2-2 in his four-game audition as the starter to close the 2022 season after Marcus Mariota was benched and then released. Former Washington starter Taylor Heinicke signed a two-year deal with Atlanta to be Ridder's backup.

One year ago, Ridder was a rookie backup. He has to assert different leadership this summer as the starter.

“Obviously, he wasn’t the starter last year until he was, but now he’s the full-time starter, so he has stepped into the new role and he’s stepping up and being more vocal,” Pitts said. “He’s the quarterback and we’ve got to do like he says.”

Ridder said he was glad to see Pitts, his surgically repaired left knee supported by a sleeve, on the field for the opening day of camp. The Falcons are expected to be a run-first offense again with Robinson joining Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson at running back, but a healthy Pitts is crucial for Atlanta's hopes.

“Just seeing another big body out there running across the middle of the field,” Ridder said.

Pitts missed the final seven games last season and finished with only 28 catches for 356 yards after having 68 receptions for 1,026 yards as a rookie. He said he is “very close” to be fully recovered.

“The fact he’s out there practicing and will take some reps, we’re going to be smart but that’s an encouraging sign,” Smith said.

Pitts and second-year wide receiver Drake London should be Ridder's top targets. Pitts, Ridder, London, Allgeier and Robinson are key playmakers added in the last three drafts.

The Falcons announced Tuesday that one of their new veterans on defense, end Calais Campbell, will open camp on the designated nonfootball injury list. He can be activated at any time.

“Nothing we’re concerned about long-term,” Smith said, adding Campbell's designation was due to “a personal thing he took care of. It won’t affect his performance, but he’ll be starting a little later than the rest of the guys.”

Other free-agent additions on defense include safety Jessie Bates III, defensive tackle David Onyemata, outside linebackers Kaden Elliss and Bud Dupree and cornerback Mike Hughes. The team added cornerback Jeff Okudah in a trade.

Other than Campbell, defensive lineman Eddie Goldman, 29, who is resuming his career after retiring before last season, was the only player who did not participate in Wednesday's practice. Smith said he will take a “day-by-day” approach with Goldman's return.