Gonzalez excused for family time during training camp

Staff writer D. Orlando Ledbetter contributed to this article.

Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez considered retiring before and after last season before finally deciding to return for a 17th NFL season.

Gonzalez said there will be no such wavering this time.

“This is it, my last season,” Gonzalez said Thursday after the team’s opening practices.

It turns out Gonzalez’s final year includes some perks. Falcons coach Mike Smith said Gonzalez will miss time during training camp to return home to California to spend time with his family. Smith also excused Gonzalez from the team’s offseason activities.

Smith said he and Gonzalez came to a “mutual agreement” that Gonzalez would be able to miss days during training camp. Gonzalez said he told his son, Nico, last summer that he would be there for his first season of football and is keeping his promise even after returning to play for the Falcons.

“Those responsibilities are coming up pretty soon,” Gonzalez said. “I will probably head back and hang out with him and do what I told him I would do. I will join the team early. I am not going to show up a week before the (first) game. I will be out here a lot earlier than that.

“I will be ready, too. You can bet the house on that.”

Gonzalez, 37, made his 13th Pro Bowl appearance last season after catching 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns. Gonzalez holds the NFL records at his position for receptions (1,242), receiving yards (14,268), and touchdown catches (103).

Gonzalez earned his first playoff victory when the Falcons defeated the Seahawks 30-28. He decided to return after the Falcons lost to the 49ers 28-24 in the NFC Championship game.

“Sky’s the limit on what we can do,” Gonzalez said. “We know we are a long, long way away, and it starts with that first game against New Orleans.”

Rookie watch: As expected rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant started at right cornerback for the first practice. Trufant, the Falcons' first-round pick in the latest draft, is getting the first crack at replacing Dunta Robinson.

Also expected was that Trufant was victimized by Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones during one-on-one drills. Trufant and cornerback Robert Alford, a second-round pick, will be challenged by Jones and Roddy White.

“Those two guys are going to have tough days every day,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “Those are two of the best wide receivers in the league. It’s good for us.”

Unlike last season, the Falcons are counting on major contributions from rookies.

In addition to Trufant and Alford, defensive end Malliciah Goodman (fourth-round draft pick), tight end Levine Toilolo (fourth) and Stansly Maponga (fifth) are competing for playing time. Safeties Kemal Ishamel (seventh) and Zeke Motta (seventh) could earn backup and special-teams roles, and quarterback Sean Renfree (seventh) could land the third quarterback job behind Matt Ryan and Dominique Davis.

Smith noted that the rookies spent a total of 60 days with the team, including four days in Canton, Ohio, for the rookie symposium, so he expects them to be up to speed at the start of training camp.

Getting flexible: Garrett Reynolds, who ended last season on injured reserve after back surgery, is the leading candidate to start at right guard along the revamped offensive line.

“For me, the main thing has been working on my flexibility and being able to bend and sit on bull rushes and stuff like that,” Reynolds said. “My back is doing great. I haven’t had one problem with it.”

Targeting rules: The Falcons plan to get ready for the new league rules over targeting. They will have NFL officials at practice next week. The officials will stay for five days and help during the "Friday Nights Lights" scrimmage and the practices with the Cincinnati Bengals on Aug. 5 and 6.

Players will have a chance to ask the officials questions.

“I think we’re going to have Jerome Boger, who actually did the Super Bowl this year,” Smith said. “So, we’ll have one of the top officials in the NFL who will be here with us with other crew members.”

Medical watch: Maponga (foot) was cleared for individual drills. Maponga, the team's fifth-round draft pick out of TCU, had surgery in March to repair the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. The Falcons plan to bring him along slowly.