Beek's Bits: Eight things I've learned from Falcons camp

It's still really early but here are my thoughts on some of the more exciting moments and emerging storylines from camp

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We've watched only a handful of days of Falcons training camp so far – including one intra-squad scrimmage – and while that's not a huge sample size by any means, there are definitely some interesting storylines developing. Some have caught me by surprise while others have been, well, more predictable.

Still, it's early. Very early.

So, with that, here are my thoughts on some of the more exciting moments and emerging storylines during AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp here in Flowery Branch.

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1. A.J. Terrell quiets the naysayers ... for now

From the moment camp kicked off last Saturday, A.J. Terrell has made his presence known in just about every practice since. The No. 16 overall pick in last April's draft has made a habit of knocking down passes and picking off passes, which is a welcome sight for a defense that ranked No. 22 against the pass, giving up 244.9 passing yards per game last season, and was 19th in the league after forcing just 20 turnovers combined.

The most talked about interception in camp so far was Terrell's first one, when he went up and picked off a Matt Ryan pass intended for receiver Calvin Ridley along the right sideline. Terrell made a nice read, high-pointed the ball and then fell to the ground as he secured the ball in front of Ridley.

Terrell, a first team All-ACC selection last year at Clemson, has a knack for making plays and is definitely looking like a first-round pick right now.

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2. Julio Jones is lookin' like, well, Julio Jones

While the Falcons' young secondary has done an excellent job at making plays and garnering lots of attention through the first few days of camp, Julio Jones has this way of stepping out onto the field and reminding everyone that he's still the best receiver in the league – and practically impossible to cover at times.

Just when it seems like the defense is having its way out here, all Matt Ryan has to do is look Jones's way. There have been of number of times Ryan has connected with Jones on crossing routes underneath and it's almost not fair (but so much fun to watch).

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3. Another rookie with a nose for the ball emerging

It can be easy to overreact in the early days of training camp when a rookie or undrafted free agent makes a big play, especially when the pads aren't on. I can't tell you how often I hear, "He looks really good out there." But when the pads do come on, the team is scrimmaging, and the intensity picks up – and certain players still continue to make plays – those are notable moments.

Well, one player who continues to make plays day in and day out is rookie linebacker Mykal Walker. If the Fresno State product has either picked off a pass, come up with a tipped ball or batted down a pass in just about every practice so far. That's good news for the Falcons and their fourth-round pick.

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4. Battle for left guard figures to be spirited, intense

Right now the battle for the starting left guard job appears to be a three-man race. James Carpenter, Matt Gono and rookie Matt Hennessy have all taken reps with the first-team offense at times in camp. It's too early to say there's a clear-cut favorite right now, but all three have looked solid in practice, including the rookie from Temple.

That position has been somewhat of a sore spot on a unit that surrendered 50 sacks in 2019 and 42 the season before. Atlanta also finished 30th in the NFL is rushing offense last year. Part of the reason for inconsistent play there has been injuries as Carpenter, Jamon Brown and Wes Schweitzer spent time there in 2019.

Who will emerge in the coming weeks? Time will tell, but it's perhaps the most important position battle in camp at the moment.

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5. We see you out there, Isaiah Oliver

As I noted in my early guess at who the defensive starters will be in Week 1, there's been a lot of on-the-job learning for Isaiah Oliver over the last two seasons and the good news right now is that he keeps improving.

And just like this time last year, Oliver once again looks more confident in camp and is making plays. The second-round pick from Colorado has broken up a number of passes while covering the likes of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. And that should give any young corner tons of confidence. Oliver has also had the benefit of working under new secondary coach Joe Whitt and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris for an entire offseason.

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6. Falcons stable of running backs looks impressive

One of the biggest moves the Falcons made this offseason was signing three-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro Todd Gurley to a one-year prove-it deal. Naturally, there's been a ton of buzz surrounding the former University of Georgia star who was named the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 and the AP Offensive Player of the Year in 2017.

But don't forget about Brian Hill, Qadree Ollison and Ito Smith. Hill, who was one of the bigger stories in last year's training camp after transforming himself physically and improving substantially as a receiver, once again looks fast and is running with authority.

As Will McFadden noted in Thursday's practice takeaways, Hill single-handedly led the second-team offense during their lone scoring drive, carrying the ball three straight times, including a goal-line touchdown run.

"I would say Brian came back in fantastic shape," Quinn said Thursday. "He is 100 percent a guy on a mission. You see his speed at practice, his ability to catch has certainly improved."

Ollison and Smith have also stood out in practices, too. Ollison might've been the most impressive back in Wednesday's practice while Smith is without a doubt the quickest and most shifty one of the bunch.

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7. Falcons being mindful of snap counts for veterans

The Falcons, as Dan Quinn noted, have a plan in place for certain veteran players and that includes monitoring the amount of reps in practice. Two such players who have been limited thus far are running back Todd Gurley and Alex Mack.

Let's be clear here on thing: It has nothing to do with injuries. It's more what of the Falcons like refer as "load management."

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8. Sight for sore eyes: Keanu Neal is back at it

There might not be a better feel-good story right now than the return of hard-hitting safety Keanu Neal. When he's back there roaming around in the secondary or lurking up near the line of scrimmage, Neal is another one of those difference-makers for the Falcons.

After tearing his ACL in the opening game of the 2018 season, Neal only made it through three games last season before injuring his Achilles and ending up on injured reserve. It's been an incredibly tough road back yet here is the hard-hitting safety from Florida.

I asked Neal a week or so ago if he was going to take a different approach to the 2020 season, and he said yes. Neal explained that he learned a lot while watching and believes the entire experience has made him a better and smarter pro.

There were highlights from the offense and defense during the first team scrimmage on Day 14 of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.

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