FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons’ offseason program opened Tuesday, beginning the monthslong buildup to the season. Cornerback A.J. Terrell and left tackle Jake Matthews, leaders on defense and offense, made it clear they believe in the direction of their franchise in transition.

There are new faces aplenty in Flowery Branch, most notably at quarterback, where Marcus Mariota replaces Matt Ryan, the longtime face of the team. Mariota was present Tuesday, earning compliments from his new blindside protector.

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“We talked a little bit today and all good stuff,” Matthews said. “Great guy from what I’ve been able to see so far. The beginning of building that camaraderie and like, ‘Hey, we need to get the O-line and quarterbacks out weekly and go get dinner or something.’ Just stuff like that, those initial steps to building that teammate companionship that you have. Because I’ve noticed that the teams that are usually better were closer as a group. We do more stuff together, and we get along, and we all work hard and have the same ideals.”

Matthews admits it’s jarring to realize he’s the veteran of the team. The sixth overall pick in the 2014 draft, he’s now the longest-tenured Falcon. He understands the responsibility that bears as the organization undergoes a makeover. He and guard Chris Lindstrom are fixtures on an otherwise questionable offensive line that includes youngsters (Matt Hennessy, Jalen Mayfield, Drew Dalman) and players trying to find their way (Kaleb McGary and newcomer Germain Ifedi, who was a college teammate of Matthews).

Nobody expects much from the Falcons in 2022. The team will be commonly projected at the bottom of the NFC South and likely in the bottom five overall in the NFL. Matthews, as one would expect, stressed the team doesn’t see it that way. He rejected the notion of a rebuild before he was even asked.

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“It’s exciting what we got going on here,” he said. “I’m really optimistic about what’s going on and the thing we’re building. We have high expectations for ourselves, there’s no doubt, this year. We don’t look at it as a rebuilding year or anything like that.”

Matthews continued, endorsing general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith and how their philosophies align with his. Discussing the team’s perception around the NFL, Matthews said the Falcons want opponents to identify them as a “physical, finishing, well-conditioned and doesn’t-let-up team.”

“It's exciting what we got going on here. I'm really optimistic about what's going on and the thing we're building. We have high expectations for ourselves, there's no doubt, this year. We don't look at it as a rebuilding year or anything like that."

- Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews

The defense likewise is experiencing significant change. The Falcons signed veteran cornerback Casey Hayward and linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Rashaan Evans, adding what they could while constrained by a salary-cap crunch. Hayward, a former Pro Bowl player, will play across Terrell to form a solid cornerback duo – and one possible strength on the team.

The Falcons are retooling their defense with Terrell, who won’t turn 24 until September, as a foundational piece. A quick glance at Terrell’s success, per Pro Football Focus: He surrendered 20 or fewer yards in 13 of 16 games played. He held quarterbacks to a league-low 47.5 passer rating and 43.9 completion percentage.

Terrell has only 30 games under his belt, working under three defensive coordinators (Raheem Morris and interim Jeff Ulbrich in 2020, Dean Pees in 2021) in that span. There’s plenty of room to grow.

“(The offseason program) actually helps for sure,” Terrell said. “My rookie year and then last year, we didn’t really have a real offseason. We had to Zoom. So not being able to see the faces and not being in the same meeting room, not being with the guys, it was a different ballgame. But now we get to see each other, get the lock in, ask questions and know about each other a little bit more.”

As the Falcons continue building their roster, there aren’t many known quantities. But they can take comfort in Terrell and Matthews, two players they believe can help guide them into their next successful era.