FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Now that Falcons Minicamp Built by The Home Depot is officially in the books, it's time to assess what we've learned as the team breaks for the summer with an eye towards training camp.
In no specific order, here are the 10 most important (or notable, at least) things we've learned about this 2018 group of Falcons.
1. Calvin Ridley appears to be as good as advertised.
The Falcons first-round draft pick not only flashed his speed and showed off some of the route-running that made him the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but he made some fantastic catches as well. Did he catch everything? No, there were a few drops, but the good definitely far outweighed any negatives.
2. Jack Crawford looks like pre-injury Jack Crawford.
When Jack Crawford went down against the Bills with a season-ending bicep injury in 2017, it was a pretty big blow to the Falcons' defense. Not only is Crawford big (he's listed at 6-foot-5, 274 pounds) and fast, he's also versatile. Crawford can line up inside or on the edge, and that's a big deal in Dan Quinn's defense – especially considering the free-agent departures of Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn.
3. Justin Bethel keeps showing up and making plays.
Let's admit it. When the Falcons signed cornerback Justin Bethel to a one-year deal during free agency, it didn't exactly create tremors among Falcons fans or send shockwaves throughout the league. It wasn't a splashy move, but an extremely solid one by general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Based on what we've seen from the seventh-year corner and special teams ace, it should pay dividends this year. In case you forgot, Bethel has earned three Pro Bowl nods and tallied four interceptions (three returned for touchdowns) during his Cardinals tenure. And during Falcons minicamp, he was back it (see below):
4. Offensive line looks healthy, deeper and more cohesive.
A year ago, all the talk heading into training camp was the battle brewing at right guard – and that it was going to last through camp. It pretty much did – until Wes Schweitzer was named the starter. Then the 2017 season happened, which included a number of different line rotations due to injuries. So when free agency came along, the Falcons went out and signed Brandon Fusco to a three-year deal worth a reported $12.75 million. Fusco, who is 6-foot-4 and 306 pounds, brings a ton of experience to the table, starting 80 of 83 games with the 49ers. He also solidifies that right guard spot and joins center Alex Mack, left guard Andy Levitre, left tackle Jake Matthews and right tackle Ryan Schraeder. If that group can stay healthy, it'll go a long way in helping this team fulfill its potential in 2018.
5. Battle for starting fullback will go down to the wire.
The Falcons didn't get the production they were looking for at fullback last season and they eventually moved on from Derrick Coleman. During the offseason, Atlanta went out and signed three fullbacks – Daniel Marx, Luke McNitt and Ricky Ortiz. Marx and McNitt are rookies out of Stanford and Nebraska, respectively, while Ortiz has a year of experience. All three are athletic and will have a chance to make an impact on special teams as well, especially considering the rule changes that favor having more mid-sized players on the field (during kickoff and kickoff return) who can run and catch.
6. The kick and punt returner battles are wide open.
Andre Roberts, the Falcons' main kick and punt returner from a year ago, signed with the Jets during free agency. When special teams coach Keith Armstrong was asked if there were any favorites to replace Roberts (and to name names), he rattled off the following: Marvin Hall, Justin Hardy, Ito Smith, Isaiah Oliver and Calvin Ridley. Although Armstrong did add that Ridley was "probably wishful thinking" on his part. But the bigger point is this: The Falcons are far from naming a starter on those units – and that'll be one of the key storylines to come out of training camp.
7. Young linebackers will push for playing time.
There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to the linebacker corps depth, but I liked what I saw out there from that group. The Falcons' starters – Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Duke Riley – are among the best in the league. But the rookies definitely caught my eye during OTAs and minicamp, including Foyesade Oluokun, Richard Jarvis, Emmanuel Ellerbee, Emmanuel Smith and Anthony Winbush – especially the two Ivy Leaguers, Oluokun (Yale) and Jarvis (Brown). I wouldn't be surprised to see some of those guys make a strong case for playing time once the season rolls around. But let's just put it out there: we won't truly know what the Falcons have here until the pads come one. Can't wait.
8. Dan Quinn loves this rookie class – and we now know why.
Following rookie minicamp, Falcons coach Dan Quinn gushed about this rookie class. Quinn said he liked what he saw in their physical and mental preparation – and really liked what he saw on the field. And that continued through OTAs and mandatory minicamp. At different points over the last few weeks, Quinn has provided some glowing reviews on receiver Calvin Ridley, cornerback Isaiah Oliver, defensive tackle Deadrin Senat, running back Ito Smith, receiver Russell Gage and linebacker Foyesade Oluokun. Sure, it's still very early. But don't underestimate Quinn's positive remarks here. There is a lot to like about this group.
9. Eric Saubert has definitely made a jump from Year 1 to Year 2.
There's been a lot of talk during the offseason about the tight end. I've defended and raved about Austin Hooper a number of times in my daily mailbag Straight from the ’Beek. Hooper has improved statistically in every category during his first two years in the league and his future looks bright. But fans being fans, wanted the Falcons to pounce on Jimmy Graham during the offseason – which obviously never materialized as the former Saints and Seahawks tight end signed with the Packers. And I was fine with that. The Falcons did sign Logan Paulsen during free agency, but he's primarily a blocking tight end who replaces Levine Toilolo. And after watching OTAs and minicamp, I'm feeling much better about the tight end depth. Why? Because Eric Saubert has shown up in Year 2 and has caught everything in sight. The second-year player out of Drake has looked great in practice. He's running past guys and making plays downfield (take a peek at that clip below for a sampling). Again, it's early and the pads aren't on yet, but Saubert looks much improved – which should make that group even better. Now, if he can do it consistently during training camp and in the games, the Falcons will be in business. Stay tuned.
10. Third-string quarterback battle should be, well, interesting.
Everyone always wants to talk about the quarterback position, but when Matt Ryan is QB1, there's not a whole lot to talk about. Falcons fans have, at times, also put backup Matt Schaub in their crosshairs. If you don't believe me, read Straight from the ’Beek sometime. Well, we might actually have something for all those fans thirsty for a real QB competition. Enter Kurt Benkert and Garrett Grayson, who will begin training camp battling for that third-string spot. Right now I'm calling this one a push, but it should be fun to watch this battle unfold during the hot-and-humid days of summer in Flowery Branch.