The Falcons facility is buzzing again after weeks largely dormant.
Coaches reconvened as a staff on Monday. Players have started showing up in Flowery Branch, even before Tuesday's official report date.
That means AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp is right around the corner.
There's a lot we know about this new beginning, and plenty more to get worked out during camp and the preseason. Let's get to five questions needing answers over the next six-plus weeks.
1. Have the Falcons mastered new schemes?
Head coach/offensive play-caller Arthur Smith and defensive coordinator Dean Pees spent most of the offseason program implementing new systems. The Falcons were largely in install mode even during a mandatory minicamp, but full-speed execution will be a focal point during the summer.
While truly mastering it may take time, the Falcons have to be fluent and able to make proper reads and adjustments required to make these plays work as designed.
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It's particularly important that quarterback Matt Ryan, center Matt Hennessy, linebackers Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun and safeties Erik Harris and Duron Harmon are well versed in their respective systems, considering they'll be actively calling pre-snap signals.
Early-camp sloppiness isn't cause for panic while players try to communicate with relatively new verbiage and then carry out orders once the ball is snapped. Getting on the same page is key as Smith, Pees and the coaching staff figure out which plays are ready to call when it matters most.
The Falcons need precise execution come the regular season and finding a good rhythm between him and Ryan especially is paramount to early-season success. Those two must be on the same page early, without the benefit of preseason reps. Can't imagine Ryan plays a game that doesn't count, so seeing Ryan establish a good practice rhythm with the offense running well should provide confidence he's ready to run Smith's offense well.
2. How will the secondary shake out?
We trust that A.J. Terrell's starting at one outside cornerback spot. Anything else would cause jaws to hit the floor. The other prominent secondary roles are a bit less certain.
We think Duron Harmon and Erik Harris will take control at the safety spots. Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins might have something to say about that.
Fabian Moreau seems to be a frontrunner to play opposite Terrell, in the slot or both. Kendall Sheffield might offer a stiff challenge. Maybe rookies Darren Hall or Avery Williams put up a fight for prominent rookies.
All these things are possible with a secondary in serious flux. Terrell's the only player with a firm grasp on his position.
Barring something shocking, sticking with the vets seems logical. That's especially true early on as the Falcons try to build positive momentum and give themselves a shot to start the season strong. Young players could emerge down the road with continued development, but the NFL's worst pass defense last year needs marked improvement. Go with the guys who can help most right away.
3. Which rookies are ready to make immediate impact?
Kyle Pitts is an obvious answer. He should be heavily featured in this year's offense. It's also a point we've discussed a ton already, so let's move past it.
How about other members of this 2021 NFL Draft class? Richie Grant could well sit behind two veterans unless he forces the issue. The Central Florida product could demand playing time or a role with a solid camp. We're not discounting that as a possibility.
Third-round offensive lineman Jalen Mayfield could challenge for the left guard spot or, as The Athletic's Tori McElheney pointed out, might make a run at Kaleb McGary's gig at right tackle. Time will tell where Mayfield, who played tackle at Michigan, lines up most. He could push some veterans with a solid camp.
Williams should figure into the return game. Maybe Drew Dalman makes a run at the center spot.
Or maybe the rookie class develops in the background. It's always tough to expect a big impact from young players. Even some with busts in Canton, Ohio struggle their rookie year. It's unfair to assume they'll seamlessly transition to the NFL. That's why front offices develop veteran cover, as the Falcons did this offseason. They don't need anyone outside Pitts to come out strong. It would be a bonus if they did.
Last week, the 2021 Rookie Class completed the Rookie Development Program where they received information, resources and expert advice that helped guide them as they began their professional career. Speakers included senior executive leadership from within the organization, NFL representatives, wealth management experts, community leaders, veteran players, Falcons Legends and our coaching staff.
4. Have the Falcons improved in the trenches?
Smith wants the 2021 Falcons to be a tougher, more physical football team than in recent seasons. That starts up front.
The Falcons must be better blocking in the run game and rushing the passer especially, two deficiencies from a year ago that simply can't continue if they're going to be competitive.
On the offensive side. Hennessy must take control at center. Josh Andrews needs to be stout at left guard. The entire front must create space for Mike Davis to run. While most prominent players won't show up much, if at all, during the preseason, we'll get a glimpse at the run game once pads come on. The front must look cohesive to create confidence the Falcons can run well enough to balance the offense.
Grady Jarrett needs help on the defensive end, where multiple players need to step up. Marlon Davidson has the talent to make an impact. That's certainly possible if he stays healthy. Dante Fowler must do better despite getting lots of attention from pass protectors for the D-line to take a leap.
5. How long until the Julio Jones trade truly fades away?
We're almost there now. The Falcons have turned the page after trading Jones to Tennessee for a compensation package featuring a 2022 second-round NFL Draft pick and have moved on without the star receiver.
Smith might get a Jones question or two during his first camp presser, and it will certainly be a hot topic when the Falcons and Titans open the preseason slate on Aug. 13 at Mercedes Benz Stadium. That'll be the case even if Jones doesn't play (he won't) and the lead up to the trade itself will surely be rehashed ad nauseum.
Once we get past that moment, everything should slow down and complete focus should henceforth be on the 2021 Falcons.
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