FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Summer is here people! And with the arrival of it, the facility out in Flowery Branch has begun clearing out as players and coaches alike head out for some much-needed down time. Hopefully your's truly can find some down time as well. But we digress.
Thursday was officially the final day of Falcons offseason training work as they wrapped up mandatory minicamp with one last strength and conditioning session. For the last month, media members have been able to watch a handful of practices in their entirety, and we were able to learn a lot about where the Falcons stand with six weeks separating us from the start of training camp in the last week of July.
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- Notes, observations from minicamp: Day 1 | Day 2
- Finding Falcons rookie series: Bijan Robinson | Matthew Bergeron | Zach Harrison | Clark Phillips III | DeMarcco Hellams
It would take too long to go over every single note or observation I've had since the start of OTAs and minicamp, so I won't bore you with all the nitty-gritty details. However, I did want to leave you with a little something before the week ended. With this in mind, here are five key takeaways I had from mandatory minicamp this week.
1) Defensive line depth is palpable
For the first time in a long time, Grady Jarrett has some help. This is nothing against the players who have played alongside Jarrett in recent years, but one can't overlook the money the Falcons have pumped into the defensive front this offseason. With more money should come higher caliber players, right? Well, with the additions of Calais Campbell, David Onyemata and Bud Dupree that statement should ring true.
Jarrett signed an extension last offseason and the Falcons brought back Lorenzo Carter and Ta'Quon Graham returned this week from his season-ending injury from last year. That's not to mention the younger linemen and edge rushers, too: Think Arnold Ebiketie, even Timmy Horne who the coaching staff really liked last year. Oh, and even though he wasn't out there for minicamp because he's on a different return-to-play plan, Eddie Goldman came out of retirement this offseason, so he'll join the fold eventually, too. There's so much depth along this defensive front, and that's something I haven't felt like I could say about this defense in a very long time.
Even though there were no pads on throughout the last month of practices and even though no one was going 110 percent, you could feel the depth across the defensive line. For that reason alone, things felt different in Flowery Branch. Likely immensely so for Jarrett.
2) Back to the future for CP
Cordarrelle Patterson was in attendance throughout mandatory minicamp this week and for the first time since last season ended, he spoke to the media about all of the changes Atlanta has undergone since that time. Namely the addition of one Bijan Robinson to a running back room that already holds the likes of Patterson and Tyler Allgeier.
As Scott Bair pointed out in his article on Patterson this week: The veteran's role has shifted as necessary since he joined the Falcons in 2021.
"His snaps show the contrast between seasons," Bair wrote. "In 2022, Patterson took 304 snaps as a running back and 78 everywhere else. In 2021, he had 294 snaps at running back and 178 at other spots."
As Patterson told the media this week, he'd like to get back to that 2021 usage. As would his head coach, with Arthur Smith saying on the first day of minicamp that Patterson's versatility as an offensive weapon is what makes him so valuable to the organization.
"CP has done a lot of jobs.," Smith said. "You saw that his role in 2021 was a very different story than what he did in 2022. I don't want to get too specific in it – that will play itself out – but I'm excited CP is still here. He looks good. It's a good problem to have with guys who are versatile.
"Out of some necessity, last year he was used more traditionally as a running back. Those are good problems to have. … It gives us a lot of flexibility. … CP is certainly a valuable person to this program."
If these words are to be believed, perhaps it means Patterson's role in 2023 will look similar to what it did two years ago. If that's the case, you'll hear no complaints from me.
3) Battle for the nickel
I have to say, I wasn't really expecting a position battle to arise this early but here we are. If you would have asked me a month ago what the stiffest competition would be for a starting role I would have said the battle for left guard between Matt Hennessy and recent second round pick Matthew Bergeron. That doesn't really seem to be the case as Hennessy worked exclusively with the would-be, first-team offensive line throughout all of OTAs.
Instead, things have heated up at nickel.
When the offseason got underway and the Falcons signed Mike Hughes to a two-year deal, I just assumed that meant he'd be the Falcons primary nickel. But Dee Alford's spring has changed my thinking. It's been Alford who's rotated in as the first-team nickel or star or slot (whatever term you want to use, per Smith in his final minicamp press conference). Smith and defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen had a few compliments ready to fire for Alford when asked, with Smith saying his work ethic cannot be overlooked.
But I don't think I am ready to call it Alford's position to lose just yet. I can't forget Hughes and the investment the Falcons made this offseason on the former first round pick. Things could change come August so keep your eyes on this battle. I know I will. It's one I am pretty excited to see play out.
4) Replacing Avery Williams
The worst part of OTAs had to be Williams' injury. In the Falcons first of two practices at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Williams tore his ACL. It was a non-contact injury. Smith confirmed two weeks ago that Williams will miss the 2023 season and was set to have surgery before minicamp began this week. Williams was the Falcons primary punt return man, and was arguably one of the best in the league. It's difficult to replace him, but it now has to be done. And like nickel, the battle at punt return should be ablaze through training camp.
The Falcons are not without options. Alford and Hughes extended their battle from defense to special teams during minicamp as both took reps at punt return. Someone Atlanta natives know well also saw some action in the return game. Penny Hart - who the Falcons picked up last month - is someone with punt return experience who'll be fighting for a roster spot come the 53-man cut down in August. Also in the rotation was the Falcons No. 8 overall pick, Bijan Robinson, as well as Scotty Miller and Josh Ali.
So, yes, there are options. And if we're looking ahead, perhaps this is a competition that even bleeds over into the season's start. We shall have to wait and see.
5) Let's put the pads on and go
I don't think I am alone in saying that I cannot wait for the pads to go on. I think Arthur Smith, Ryan Nielsen and offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford would all agree with me. Of course there are rules to follow for players' safety when the pads do go on in August, but that doesn't mean there won't be an added level of intensity when they do. In fact, I'm banking on it.
Smith has already dubbed training camp the Nielsen vs. Ledford bout in Flowery Branch. So, with the hype, I am expecting some excitement to brew between the offensive and defensive line come August.
We all know that Georgia heat is thick at that time. I'm hoping the tension between these two units is thick as well. Iron sharpens iron after all, right?