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Camp report: Kyle Pitts makes his return as Falcons begin 2023 training camp

Cordarrelle Patterson meets with the media, Pitts updates on his rehab and a mustachioed man sets the tone. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When the Falcons entered into their first 7-on-7 period of the 2023 training camp the first... and second passes from Desmond Ridder went to Kyle Pitts.

In and of itself, the moment wasn't all that exciting or fascinating. Pitts got a good jump off the snap and cut in front of his defender. He was only about 10 yards out when he made both catches in soft coverage. On its face, the moment was normal, mundane even. But for Pitts - and the Falcons offense, too - it was an important step to take to kick off 2023.

"The Unicorn" - as Cordarrelle Patterson said to the media after practice - is back, and "he's hungry."

"I'm happy to see him out there, just like I think everybody else is," Patterson said of Pitts' return. "... I know he has a lot that he wants to show the world. He probably wouldn't say it, but he's working his ass off each and every day."


The last time anyone saw Pitts on a football field, it was Week 11 of the 2022 season. He took a shot to the right knee as a Chicago Bears defender went to tackle him in the Falcons 27-24 win. It wasn't pretty. It was hard to watch. But initially it looked like perhaps Pitts would be OK as he popped up, gave a nice, high jump for the crowd to see and jogged to the sideline. That, though, was the adrenaline of the moment. As that adrenaline subsided, the pain radiated and soon Pitts was heading to the locker room with a trainer beside him. Two days later, it was confirmed he had a torn ligament that would require surgery. Pitts said on Wednesday that it wasn't until the MRI came back showing the tear that he truly realized the extent of the injury.

So, he entered into a period of rehabilitation. He said as soon as he woke up from his surgery - which happened the week after the injury - he was ready to get to work to get back as quickly as possible. He had to miss the Falcons OTA practices in May and June, and that wasn't very fun, to put it bluntly.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts #8 and quarterback Desmond Ridder #9 during AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

"Being on the inside for OTAs and watching, it makes you grind a little harder to get back out there," Pitts said.

He made his return to practice on Wednesday, and reflected after practice about his journey to get to this point.

"It had its ups and downs," Pitts said of his rehab, "but I got stronger for it."

Arthur Smith said prior to the start of practice that the Falcons will work Pitts back in at his pace. They're not going to rush anything in the preseason. He didn't look too limited, though, when the helmets came on, working with the first-team throughout all of the 7-on-7 and.a majority of the passing 11-on-11 periods, rotating in and out like normal. Granted his usage may change as the pads go on in another week, but for the time being, he's acclimating like everyone else.

Pitts was asked a few times how close he was to 100 percent but he declined to give a percentage, just saying that he's feeling good and happy to be back out on the field.

The third-year tight end did add that he's been working with Ridder "on the side" throughout the offseason, his third quarterback in said three years.That relationship and timing between Ridder and Pitts, he added, is coming along, which is a good thing considering Ridder and Pitts haven't shared a field together since training camp last year. Pitts got hurt in Week 11, and Ridder didn't make his starts at quarterback until the final four games of the season.

It's this observation, along with the fact that Pitts is officially practicing again, that created this sense of contentment seeing Ridder toss the ball Pitts' way during a pretty normal 7-on-7 period.

Like Patterson, Ridder said Pitts work to get back to 100 percent hasn't been lost on anyone. Everyone is pleased to see him back in a helmet again.

"He has been in here working. Ever since his injury he has done nothing but try to get right," Ridder said. "Every single day his goal was to be back out there with his guys. As players, we don't want to spend any time on the sideline if we don't have to. He did a great job working his way back."

Atlanta Falcons veterans make their return to Flowery Branch for the 2023 AT&T Training Camp.

Practice notes, observations

Roll call: Prior to the start of training camp practice on Wednesday, the Falcons placed Calais Campbell on the NFI list. Arthur Smith said before practice that though Campbell is on the list it is not an issue the Falcons are too concerned about, particularly in the long term. Campbell met with the media when players reported on Tuesday and said he was looking forward to the start of camp (and that he was rooming with Grady Jarrett, Ta'Quon Graham and David Onyemata, so the sharing of snacks would be something he'd have to monitor).

"As you get older, you appreciate the grind a little bit more," Campbell said on Tuesday morning. "You appreciate the first-day-of-school vibe from a day like this. We're going to battle. Know it's real. Minicamp and OTAs are part of the process as well, but it's nowhere close to training camp. It's a different beast."

This is why Campbell's placement on the non-football injury list on Tuesday afternoon came as a surprise to many, but again, Smith said it's not something the Falcons believe will affect his performance when he does return to the field. Also not in attendance for Wednesday's first practice was DT Eddie Goldman, who came out of retirement this offseason after a year off. Smith said during OTAs a few months back that the Falcons have Goldman on a different return-to-play plan, so his absence wasn't necessarily unexpected, just noteworthy.

"He's got some personal things he's dealing with so we will just have to take it day-by-day with Eddie," Smith said.

An eye on the o-line: Arthur Smith said that while he does like an open competition at the line of scrimmage, the Falcons will give the starting left guard reps to Matt Hennessy for the time being. The Falcons second-round pick Matthew Bergeron is working at left guard with the backups. Jalen Mayfield is also working with that group, and he has been moved to right tackle, the position he primarily played in college at Michigan before the Falcons put him at left guard after drafting him in 2021. Between Bergeron and Mayfield, seeing these two players work in these positions throughout camp will be something to monitor.

A mustachioed tone setter: As Arthur Smith walked into the press conference room for his first media availability of training camp, he apologized for being four minutes late. He said he was feeling a bit excited and passionate about camp starting and he ran a little long in the team's first meeting. Players were asked about this after practice and it was interesting to hear their response. Cordarrelle Patterson said, "Art sets the tone," while Kyle Pitts said Smith is "the foundation," and everything works off of him. As for the mustache Smith is currently rocking, he was asked about it, too. His response:

"It's a lifestyle change. It's not for everybody." (It should be noted, defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen has a mustache, too. Unconfirmed if this was planned mustache-matching. Will report back at a later date).

Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith during AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

Intensity shift: As players worked through their individual drills, it seemed everyone was pleased to be there, and they should as football is back. But perhaps that joy was shifting a little too far toward complacent early on. That lasted all of a single round of drills. As the wide receivers linked up with the quarterbacks for a few warm up routes, offensive coordinator Dave Ragone got everyone's attention. Raising his voice, a vein popping out of his neck if you looked closely enough, Ragone reprimanded the receivers for not tracking back to the ball in the warm up reps.

"You're gonna get undercut!" He bellowed.

It got their attention, and practice was off and running after that.

Safety meeting: As was a requirement last year, linemen, tight ends, linebackers and running backs have to wear the Guardian Caps throughout training camp. However, the rule expanded this year with the league mandating the the caps be worn at every preseason practice, as well as every regular-season and postseason practice with contact. Another change is that the caps are now white, not black, as they were last year. I haven't asked the linemen how they feel about this change, but having been down on the field for four years now in the month of August, I can imagine the white caps have a much better feel than the sun-soaking black caps did last year. I'll make sure to pencil in some time with Chris Lindstrom or Kaleb McGary to ask about this later on.

Some linebacker adjustments: Throughout OTAs, the Falcons spent a lot of time in a nickel package, but on the first day of training camp, they deployed a few three-linebacker sets early with Mykal Walker playing in a role that's a little hard to classify and a bit different from what he's done in the past. Since he was drafted four years ago, Walker has played a pretty traditional inside role. However, the Falcons have Troy Andersen and Kaden Elliss as their true middle linebackers at the currently moment. This left Walker floating, usually coming up to the line of scrimmage alongside Bud Dupree or Lorenzo Carter. It seemed like Arnold Ebiketie also got a few looks in this role, with Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata continuing to anchor the middle of the defensive line. How this rotation continues to evolve throughout camp should be something to add to your list of "things to take note of." It's on mine now.

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