The Falcons offseason program has wrapped. It started back in April with strength and conditioning. On-field work wrapped Wednesday after a two-session session minicamp. Players and coaches headed to TopGolf on Thursday before separating to homes across the country. They'll surely spend some time on white-sand beaches to rest and relax before cranking back up for training camp.
As we start this rare break in the NFL calendar, let's look back at some observations from portions of the Falcons offseason program open to the press.
1. Marcus Mariota's leadership, command already impressive
We're going to be watching Falcons quarterbacks closely for a long time. First, we'll be seeing if rookie Desmond Ridder can seriously challenge veteran Marcus Mariota for the starting spot in the preseason. Then we'll see what will happen if the starter falters. Then we'll wonder if we need to see the other guy. And then we'll wonder if either guy is the long-term solution at the position.
And then, and then, and then.
Quarterback talk fuels the NFL year-round, and fans will do plenty of it around here. We can't make real judgement calls in the spring. We're not trying to do that here. I'll just say that Marcus Mariota seems in firm command of the offense, the scheme and his role on this team. He's motivated to prove he's still got it. He's only 28 years old – he feels older because he has been a star since college – and could re-establish himself as a starter after two years as a Raiders backup.
Can he do it? We don't know yet. I do think he's in a great position to thrive. I loved what he said last week about “playing free” within Arthur Smith’s offense. If he can get to that point, to play jazz instead of simply reading sheet music, his athleticism can shine. And the Falcons will be better for it.
In terms of his offseason "performance," I thought his passes were crisp and decisive and accurate. That's a good thing at this stage.
The veterans and rookies were out on the field during Minicamps this week putting in some extra work and interacting with fans before the summer break.
2. The chip-on-your-shoulder mentality is real
How many times have you heard the phrase above this offseason? A bunch. After interacting with players and coaches this offseason, it isn't lip service.
It makes real sense, especially when put in context.
This is a team in transition, with low expectations heading into the 2022 campaign. All these players and coaches have cell phones. They see and hear that, whether they have a Twitter account or not.
Now take a look at the personalities populating the roster and the motivations fueling them. You have the highly-paid and/or highly-respected incumbents very good at their jobs. They're naturally prideful, wanting to win and play better than people expect. Then you have so many veterans on prove-it deals, trying to earn playing time and produce enough to earn a bigger deal next year with the Falcons or someone else. Then you have a collection of rookies selected for their talent and their competitive mindset.
This prove-people-wrong mindset goes up the chain to Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot, and everyone is bonding through that. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett described it best a few weeks back:
"I've always had that chip on my shoulder," he said. "There are a lot of good players around here who are hungry. They want to earn that respect. Coach [Smith] wants respect as a coach. Terry [Fontenot] wants respect as a GM. You can't beat that. You can't coach that. It's just a feel, and I think everybody feels it. I'm excited to be part of a group like that."
3. No Patterson, no problem
We didn't see Cordarrelle Patterson at a practice all offseason. I couldn't care less. This is not an issue, especially after Arthur Smith explained that Patterson’s on his own program ramping up for camp. I don't need to see him at an OTA or minicamp practice, or even the preseason, to know what he's going to do this fall. Don't stress about it for a second.
4. Kyle Pitts looks even better
The second-year tight end had an excellent rookie year, with the 1,000-yard season and Pro Bowl honors to prove it.
Even after that 2021 campaign, we heard Arthur Smith say more than once that he's "just scratching the surface." Scary thing: he might be right.
What Pitts said about his speed gave me confidence that's true. He talked about getting physically faster, but also said he’s trying to get faster mentally, to be able to dissect defenses pre-snap and exploit weaknesses. That could help him a great deal in maximizing great athleticism and avoiding times when he'd go quiet due to teams scheming against him. If he can find another gear, look out.
5. O-Line competition is coming
We saw centers Drew Dalman and Matt Hennessy rotating in with the first-unit offensive line during OTAs and minicamp. We saw Elijah Wilkinson and Germain Ifedi and occasionally others in there. While we don't put too much stock in who plays where and when at this stage, we're set up for some intense competition along the offensive line at left guard, center and right tackle.
Incumbents aren't giving anything up without a fight. Newcomers didn't sign here to ride the bench. That should set up some excellent battles this summer, even if we didn't see them fully develop yet. We know Jake Matthews is the left tackle and Chris Lindstrom is the right guard. Everything else is up in the air, even there are favorites and challengers.
NOTE: Stay tuned for Tori McElhaney's top five offseason program observations, dropping Friday morning.
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