The Atlanta Falcons practiced Tuesday morning as 2015 XFINITY Atlanta Falcons Training Camp stretched into its tenth day. Check out these photos from the day.
When Atlanta's new coaches began poring over tape and statistics from 2014, they quickly realized the linebacker position needed to be addressed in free agency. By signing Justin Durant—a versatile, athletic defender—the Falcons took a big (and cost-efficient) stride towards improving that area.
Along with Brooks Reed, O'Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn, Durant is a newcomer who looks like a natural fit in Dan Quinn's scheme. He'll be asked to swarm the field with abandon and rely on his natural abilities: two things he did quite well in Dallas.
In fact, he was leading the Cowboys in tackles (49) last year when he went down with a season-ending bicep tear on Oct. 27. He also had four tackles for loss, four passes defended and two forced fumbles—all in just six contests. Prorate those numbers for a 16-game slate and you have someone who can make a tremendous impact on your front seven.
Now healthy, Durant is poised to start right away for the Falcons on the outside. And though he's yet to play a down for his new team, the Hampton University graduate has already embraced a significant role in Atlanta.
"He's got some authentic leadership to him," said linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. "He's not a guy who has to try to force it and fake it. He's a guy that guys—they just look to. In football, things will go bad no matter how good you are, and he's that guy, that rock for our group. Hopefully for this entire defense, they can look to him when times get tough. And he won't waver."
When asked about Ulbrich's comments, Quinn said there are two reasons why Durant has made a good first impression.
"On one side of the field, it's the speed and quickness that we feel from the linebacker," the head coach explained. "Not just as a blitzer, not just in coverage, but also in outside plays, the screens where it just flows. The other part is his mental makeup. He has all the leadership, all the toughness that you want in a teammate. When I think about being a great teammate, he is one of the guys I think about. That is quite a combination together."
Durant's skill is hard to deny. Capable of lining up at all three LB positions in the 4-3 formation, he plays with rare awareness, might and tenacity. He's especially valuable against the run—as evident by the clip below, in which he overpowers star running back Alfred Morris behind the line of scrimmage.
Physical wellbeing remains a valid concern when it comes to Durant, and the Falcons are unquestionably cognizant of this fact. Ulbrich is keeping a close eye on the LB's workload to get him the reps he needs without overworking him, and Durant mentioned that, while he's still learning a new playbook, easing back into action has been the right approach.
This meticulous strategy is paying off: According to Quinn, Durant has recovered from previous injuries—including a hip ailment—and is being utilized in a way that accentuates his best qualities.
"Durability—that's always been a concern with him," Ulbrich said. "I think we've taken a unique approach this year with him. I think our strength and conditioning staff and our training staff has done an exceptional job regarding corrective exercises here and there."
When talking to the media last Wednesday, Durant expressed a lot of confidence in himself and the defense in general. Richard Smith's unit has progressed nicely of late, and the revamped linebacker corps, far deeper than it was in January, is often leading the way.
"It's going real well right now," said Durant. "All the guys, we're just trying to transfer it from the classroom to the field. Trying to get all the small parts, pieces together. All the checks, everything that goes with the motions.
"It's going well. Each day I'm getting better and better."