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Falcons 2017 training camp: Defense, Sarkisian and Sanu's play among 10 biggest takeaways

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Monday's practice was the last of the 2017 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp, but there is still plenty of work to be done as nearly a month remains until the start of the regular season.


Coach Dan Quinn had specific goals for the team entering this year's training camp, he said after Monday's session that this camp was the best he's had since joining the organization.

"Our aim was to throw the best camp that we've had yet, and I believe we've done that." Quinn said. "We're getting a lot closer to the style of ball that we'd like to play. We still have a lot of work to get to that spot, but at the start of camp, some of the objectives we set – in terms of attacking and playing at our best and situations at the end of the halves and end of the games – every day we worked towards that. I think we're a lot closer to that today than we were before.

"We've still got a lot of work to do to nail our style and attitude of how we want (to play), and we've still got a lot of players that we still need to evaluate. We're fortunate this year that the roster is exempt from making a cut until later, so we've still got plenty of guys to get plenty of looks at. They'll have off tomorrow (Tuesday), but we threw a great camp and that was the goal – can we throw the best camp that we've had going into our third year? And I think we've accomplished that."

Although training camp is over, Quinn said the focus will still be on developing the team and internal competition.

Now that the final whistle has been blown for the Falcons' training camp practice, it's time to look back at the 10 biggest takeaways. 1. This defense might be the fastest and deepest since Quinn's arrival

One aspect of this Falcons team that remained constant each and every day was the speed. After the very first training camp practice, starting cornerback Desmond Trufant said, "this is definitely the fastest team I've played for." He's not alone in that sentiment, as that has been a talking point for many players thus far.

The defensive depth across the board is another quality of this team that has been mentioned quite often. Safety Ricardo Allen provided the best explanation of the depth in the Falcons' secondary.

"Man, our depth is just amazing. Every position we feel that our 1s and 2s and 3s can go out and play with really anybody in the league. I feel like we can match up at any position. Our corners can match up with tight ends, running backs, slot (receivers); our safeties can also do the same.

"We've built so much depth that we can do it all now. We can play zone, we can play man, we can all blitz. We've got it now that our packages are just huge; we can do anything we want to. Our rotations, people can't tell, because it's not just going to be one guy doing one thing anymore." **

  1. Julio and McKinley appear to be rehabbing well**

The Falcons opened training camp with All-Pro receiver Julio Jones and first-round draft pick Takkarist McKinley working in a limited capacity. Exiting camp, both players appear to be right on schedule in their recovery process.

After sticking exclusively to individual drills through the first four training camp periods, Jones received snaps in the team period during the fifth practice. Since then, he's continued to progress, and Quinn recently said he looked “fast” and “explosive” while catching passes during 11-on-11 sessions.

McKinley, meanwhile, was given the “green light” to go up against live competition in head-to-head drills, and he has continued to progress. Quinn recently said he is "hopeful" McKinley will get a chance to play in the upcoming preseason game against Pittsburgh. 3. Philosophy remains, but Sarkisian bringing wrinkles to offense

Despite the departure of former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, don't expect the Falcons' offense to look much different in 2017. Quinn has established his philosophy for this offense, and it's one that new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is comfortable with.

"My goal was to come in and get comfortable with what they had done," Sarkisian said after the second day of camp. "And a lot of what they had done, philosophically, really sat well with me, because I had done a lot of it in my past. And then it was starting to incorporate some of the things that I really thought could help the offense and help it grow."

A fast start from the first-team offense against the Dolphins helped further the notion that Sarkisian isn't about to make drastic changes. 

Sarkisian also brings an outside perspective to the fold, and he has discussed adding a few new elements to the offense. One such wrinkle could be lining up running back Tevin Coleman out wide a little more often, as he has done a bit during camp. 4. Competition at right guard expected to continue

For those looking for a quick decision on the starting right guard position, that doesn't appear likely to happen. Quinn said right before camp started, and on numerous occasions since, that he plans on giving both players ample time to win the job, and he wants to have as complete an evaluation of Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer as possible.

Although Garland was named the starter against Miami, Quinn explained that deference was given due to his greater longevity with the team. Having the other four positions along the offensive line cemented allows Quinn and his offensive line coaches time to monitor Garland and Schweitzer this preseason.  5. The combination of Jarrett and Poe is impressive

After a noteworthy performance in the Super Bowl, Grady Jarrett has looked focused and determined during training camp. Often lined up next to him is Dontari Poe, Atlanta's big free agent acquisition who seems to be matching Jarrett step-for-step. The two have been pushing each other since the Falcons' minicamp in June.

Starting center Alex Mack, the player who most often lines up against the defensive tackle duo, summed the pair up thusly: "The Poe, Grady combo is a heavy one."

The Dolphins received a first-hand look at just how heavy that combo is. On six of the nine plays that Jarrett and Poe were on the field, one of them generated notable pressure into the backfield. 6. The most entertaining battle may be at wide receiver

Although Atlanta is in great shape at the position, arguably the best competition to watch during camp has been among the wide receivers. With Jones and Taylor Gabriel limited, young receivers like Marvin Hall, Reggie Davis, Josh Magee, Deante Burton and Anthony Dable have had plenty of chances to make an impression.

Each receiver has had several notable moments, but Hall has been the player who appears to be working with the starters most often. It's still early, however, and their performance during games will be extremely important. Davis led all receivers in yards against Miami, and he made a great play that was called back due to a penalty.

Quinn identified another important factor in the decision-making process; "Really their role on special teams, and what other jobs, other than playing receiver can you do?" Speaking of special teams, another name to keep an eye on is eighth-year receiver Andre Roberts, who provided a spark in the return game against the Dolphins last Thursday.

7. Secondary embodying Quinn's focus on turnovers

It's fairly common for defenses to outshine offenses once teams begin their first practice periods of the new season. Execution and timing are vital for an offense, and those aren't always up to speed at this time.

When it comes to the Falcons' secondary, however, their success doesn't seem to be due to offensive miscues as much as instinct and athleticism. With Trufant back from injury and [Robert Alfordinternal-link-placeholder-0] in great shape, the starting secondary has the potential to be among the best in the NFL.

Behind the starters, Atlanta should feel comfortable with its depth. C.J. Goodwin continues to improve in his second year at cornerback; Deji Olatoye and Blidi Wreh-Wilson have both made good plays in practice and Sharrod Neasman and rookie Damonte Kazee look good in their backup safety roles. 8. Campbell and Ishmael transitioning smoothly to new roles

Due to the versatility the Falcons have developed on defense, the coaching staff can get creative with their usage of certain players. This preseason, both De'Vondre Campbell and Kemal Ishmael are being used in new roles.

Campbell has made the switch to SAM linebacker, and he is expected to see a few more pass-rushing opportunities. Against Miami, however, Campbell also reminded fans that he's pretty comfortable in coverage as well. Of course, getting LASIK eye surgery in the offseason didn't hurt either.

The other slight change to Atlanta's defense involves Ishmael. The safety will be asked to play closer to the line of scrimmage a bit more this season, or, as he likes to put it, "going down in the nasty box." Ishmael is a physical player, who can help against both the run and pass. 9. Sanu looks to be in mid-season form

Arguably the most impressive player throughout training camp was Mohamed Sanu. Entering his second season with the team, Sanu looked faster and caught nearly every ball thrown his way.

"He came back so fit for the OTAs in the spring, you could really see his intent was right and that really carried over into the summer," Quinn said. "I singled him out this morning, as well. I thought that he's off to having a hell of a camp."

Sanu might also win the best-dressed award, if such a thing existed. He's arrived at seemingly every practice with a different set of eye-catching cleats on that could be seen when he wasn't making spectacular plays.

10. Freeman inks new five-year extension

This technically happened off the field, but I'll cheat and include it here anyway because it happened during camp. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and the Falcons have made it a point to take care of their core players, and Freeman very much fits that description.

"You know, he is just such a wild competitor," Dimitroff said after the deal was finalized. "He fits in with what we're looking for, of course. He runs hard, he catches hard, he works very hard in the offseason. For us, we wanted to reward him with the right contract, we believe in him a great deal. He's such a significant part of this offense. The way that he approached this offseason, not pulling back and running hard, to me, was just typical of what he is. To be able to reward him with a contract, we're so excited. … It's great to have him locked up."

Freeman scored the Falcons’ first touchdown against the Dolphins. He was seen leaving Sunday's practice, and Quinn later reported that he entered the NFL’s concussion protocol.

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