The Falcons opened AT&T Training Camp with four consecutive practices leading into Monday's day off.
The brief respite offers a golden opportunity to reflect on the early sessions, all conducted without pads and designed to build players back up after a down stretch away from the facility and franchise.
Head coach Arthur Smith was pleased with the retention rate after the offseason program's scheme installation, and with the improvement evident during the first four practice.
"You're seeing it in all three phases," Smith said. "We're throwing a lot at them and some guys are emerging. It's fun to watch."
The Falcons have been fun to watch thus far, with high levels of competition from the young players especially. They'll take another important step on Tuesday when they don pads for the first time and the first of four such sessions next week.
Before we get there, let's look back at what we've learned thus far and where the Falcons must progress as the summer rolls along.
1. Arthur Smith sets a proper tone
The new Falcons head coach admitted to being restless leading up to the first camp practice, "excited like (it was) the first day of school." You'd never know watching Thursday's session.
Smith was in complete command, making sure he was keeping a close eye on every unit despite being the offensive play caller. He fosters competition and accountability in his workouts, with a no-nonsense attitude that keeps practices efficient and productive.
The players took to it right away.
"We always try to practice with tempo, but Coach Smith does a good job of getting the most out of the guys," defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. "He doesn't try to drive us into the ground but, when it's go time, it's go time. It's straight relentless. It's good work. This is our first year with Coach Smith, but we trust his process going forward. We're all-in."
That's a positive sign for this Falcons coaching staff. Smith is all about being genuine, authentic with everyone in the organization. Jarrett said that resonates with this roster.
"It's deeper than a message," he said. "It's about putting a good product on the field, putting the work in. He made it clear that we're not about slogans and all that. The best players are going to play. The toughest dudes are going to play. There ain't no fluff. We're going to get the best out of everybody day in, and day out. I can't do anything but respect that. I love that about him."
- Marlon Davidson ready to make every opportunity count after rough rookie year
- How A.J. Terrell has shown growth heading into second NFL season
- Practice report: Running backs active in receiving game, young cornerbacks emerge
- More info on AT&T Training camp: https://www.atlantafalcons.com/schedule/event-calendar/att-training-camp
2. Kyle Pitts all over the map
There's no telling where rookie tight end Kyle Pitts might line up on a given play. The No. 4 overall NFL draft pick's unique trait allow him to play in several spots, from in-line tight end, wide receiver or in the slot. Smith has been willing to put tight ends at an H-back spot as well.
Just because Pitts will start in one spot doesn't mean he'll end up there. He's put in motion quite a bit, making him a tough person to track as Smith tries to find mismatches he can exploit.
We don't know exactly how Pitts will be featured in the scheme – there's no point in Smith revealing that before games that count – but his position versatility and diverse skill set will allow him to move around a ton. That should prove advantageous for Pitts in the pattern and for other skill players who might find open space or favorable situations with attention devoted to the tight end.
Having Pitts and Hayden Hurst available means Smith can do some innovative things out of two tight end sets, going from obvious run looks to pass-friendly formations with some pre-snap motion. It'll be interesting to see how Smith's creative play designs will accentuate those team strengths moving forward.
3. New and/or young defensive backs standing out
The Falcons drafted two cornerbacks and a safety this year. They added two established safeties and a veteran cornerback. All that was done to overhaul a previously lackluster secondary rebuilt around A.J. Terrell.
The Clemson product has been awesome as expected, though other young players have impressed in the early going. That list includes cornerback Darren Hall and first-year cover man Chris Williamson. Avery Williams and T.J. Green have also had some nice moments playing with various units.
Erik Harris and Duron Harmon have helped stabilize things in the back with solid leadership, on-field communication and their overall play. Fabian Moreau has consistently worked opposite Terrell on the first unit, and must be a consistent presence there. It's still early, but the young and new faces provide in encouraging signs the secondary is in a far better place than it was a year ago.
4. Question marks on both fronts
There's plenty of competition along the offensive line, which could be considered both a good and bad thing. Position battles can bring the best out of players, but not having established standouts at three spots isn't exactly ideal. Left tackle Jake Matthews and right guard Chris Lindstrom are locks and trusted assets. Uncertainty beyond that means players must emerge and take a stranglehold on the remaining spots, which are open to varying degrees.
Josh Andrews is the favorite at left guard, Matt Hennessy is an early frontrunner at center and Jalen Mayfield's at right tackle until Kaleb McGary's healthy enough to come off PUP and fight for a starting job he has held the last two years.
The defensive line is in similar flux, especially with Dante Fowler missing the start of camp on the COVID-19 list. He's far and away the Falcons' most dynamic edge rusher, and they'll need him in top form when the regular season starts. Smith said he has to earn a role, and that will be imperative to the line's success. Grady Jarrett's a rock inside, but the team needs a lift from Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and second-year pro Marlon Davidson.
The pads haven't come on yet, and we'll know more about the state of the lines in the coming days. Keep an eye on which guys stand out when players start hitting, especially in a Saturday scrimmage and the joint practices against the Miami Dolphins.
5. Finally, 'a sense of normalcy'
The Falcons hosted opened their Saturday training camp practice to fans, the first of five public sessions at their Flowery Branch facility. Falcons faithful lined the hill perpendicular to the field, bringing energy to the weekend's proceedings. General manager Terry Fontenot and Smith addressed the crowd on Saturday, thanking them for coming and emphasizing how important they were to the team's home-field advantage this season. While autographs still aren't permitted due to COVID-19 protocols, Matt Ryan tossed a football into the crowd and several players over to thank fans for coming out.
It was the first time they'd been there since 2019, after the pandemic eliminated open-practice opportunities last year. Gotta say it was nice to have them there, and the players agree.
"It has been quiet out here at practice, not even having (the media) around. It feels good to have everybody back," Ryan said. "It feels good to kind of get back to some sense of normalcy and hopefully, people can stay safe and keep moving in that direction. But to have fans out at practice today, it brings up the energy there's no getting around that. We played all year last year, or most of the year without fans in the stands and I thought the play was very good, but you do feed off of it and you miss it, and certainly appreciate having them back."
Tight end Kyle Pitts is locked in as he works through his first training camp. Take a look at the best images from Day 4 of 2021 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.
2021 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp: Dirty Birds Open Practice
WHEN: August 7th
WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Stadium
TIME: 2:00 PM ET
The 2021 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp: Dirty Birds Open Practice entertainment, including cheerleaders, drumline and Atlanta Falcons Legends, will kick-off when gates open and fans are encouraged to arrive early to enjoy Mercedes-Benz Stadium's award-winning food & beverage experience offering fan-first prices.
Tickets for the open practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be $5 each and all proceeds will go to the Emory Healthcare's research and discovery programs.
Due to the current NFL protocols around COVID-19, there will not be opportunities for player autographs.
Stay tuned here for more information!