FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – And on Tuesday the Falcons will rest.
The Falcons wrapped up their first four days of training camp on Monday, culminating with a 30-minute scrimmage designed to help create what Falcons coach Dan Quinn referred to as some “game-like stressful situations.” Now the players get the day off before returning back for Day 5 of camp Wednesday morning.
So, what have we learned about these 2018 Falcons so far? Let’s recap the 10 biggest stories, moments and emerging storylines from the first four days of camp. Oddly enough, the top three moments didn’t take place on the field.
10. Falcons continue to rotate returners on daily basis
One of the very first things we noticed on Day 1 of camp was the combination of returners on special teams. Receivers Marvin Hall and Justin Hardy were the two players back returning punts for the Falcons. That was notable because there was a total of seven players who returned kicks during minicamp: Calvin Ridley, Isaiah Oliver, Ito Smith, Damontae Kazee, Reggie Davis, Hall and Hardy.
“We’re going to put two [back there] each day who are going to catch live,” Quinn said. And the Falcons have continued to do just that.
Stay tuned to see on how that shakes out.
9. Freeman says 2018 offense can be ‘scary’ good
Devonta Freeman isn’t shy when it comes to speaking his mind and on Monday, Day 4 of camp, the Falcons running back explained just how good he thinks this offense can be in 2018.
“I think we’ve got a really, really scary offense,” Freeman said. “When we’re clicking and all of us are on the same page, I think we can do some really great things.”
Atlanta is talented and deep at nearly every skill position, not to mention the offensive line returns every starter from last season. They also added and added an 80-game veteran in Brandon Fusco and drafted receiver Calvin Ridley in the first round. Throw in Steve Sarkisian’s comment about comparing his feeling entering this season as opposed to last year as “night and day” and, well, Freeman might be onto something.
For what it’s worth, safety Ricardo Allen lines up against the Falcons’ offense every day in practice and said “it’s a nightmare.”
8. Quinn identifies an under-the-radar player he’s anxious to see
Prior to the Falcons’ open practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the NFL Network’s Steve Smith asked Quinn to name a player who “nobody knows about” but “can play.”
Quinn responded by naming rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun, a sixth-round pick out of Yale. “He’s got speed, he’s got size, he’s got toughness,” Quinn said, also noting Oluokun’s versatility while in college where he played both defensive back and linebacker. “He’s got the run-and-hit factor, he’s got speed. I’m anxious to see what he can do.”
For what it’s worth, Quinn also mentioned the fullback battle when talking about players he was eager to see and evaluate. That competition is currently between Luke McNitt and Ricky Ortiz after Daniel Marx was waived on Monday.
7. Coaches continue to move players around, including Ridley and Oliver
While fine-tuning players’ skills, learning and conditioning are all important aspects of training camp, it’s mostly about evaluating players – especially the rookies and other young players. And one of the ways the Falcons coaching staff does that is by moving players around, playing them in different positions and putting them in different game-like situations. And I’m not just talking about playing on special teams, either.
For instance, we’ve seen rookie cornerback Isaiah Oliver line up on both the outside receivers and in the slot. And We’ve seen first-round pick Calvin Ridley moved around quite a bit as well, including inside, outside and back returning punts and kicks.
6. Run game ‘needs the most attention’ at this point in camp
It shouldn’t come as any big surprise at this time of year if one unit is ahead of another. And sometimes it’s one aspect of the offense or defense. And that’s the case for the Falcons, where Quinn noted on Monday that the passing game is a bit ahead of the run game right now.
“I think the passing game is probably a little bit ahead at this time of year on both side – pass defense and pass [offense],” Quinn said. “It’s the running game on both sides is what needs the extra emphasis, as you guys could imagine.”
Why? Well, one reason is because teams “don’t really get the same contact during the spring,” Quinn noted. That’ll change in the coming days and weeks.
5. Sarkisian’s changes evident to players like Ryan, Sanu
One of the more notable offseason moments came in June when offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said that one of the biggest changes for him heading into the 2018 season, compared to last year, was his comfort level. He said the difference is “night and day.”
Well, early on into camp, a couple of players – quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Mohamed Sanu – noted how they’re starting to see some of those differences show up on the playing field.
“Coach is doing a great job in recognizing what guys have gotten better at and that’s key,” Sanu said of Sarkisian. “We’re just growing daily.”
4. Falcons crank up intensity with an intra-squad scrimmage
Before the players cut out for an off day, Quinn decided to hold a 30-minute scrimmage period during its fourth practice of training camp. Needless to say, things got a little intense on the Flowery Branch practice field.
“The goal behind the whole thing was to kind of create some game-like stressful situations to really evaluate the players in that environment,” head coach Quinn said after practice. “The more that we stress them, the more that we get better evaluation.”
From what I could surmise, I’d say mission accomplished. You can read more about the Red-White scrimmage here.
3. Left tackle Matthews gets five-year extension
The Falcons’ first practice of training camp hadn’t even finished yet when news broke that left tackle Jake Matthews and the team agreed to a five-year contract extension. Matthews’ new deal ensures that he’ll be in Atlanta for the foreseeable future.
“We’re really excited for him to have a longer time here,” Quinn said. “His commitment, his way that he plays, his style totally suits [us]. We’re very excited about that.”
The 26-year-old Matthews was selected by the Falcons with the sixth-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and since joining the team, he has played in 63 games with 63 starts.
2. Largest crowd to ever attend a Falcons practice
The Falcons held their first-ever open practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Day 3 of camp in front of more than 60,000 fans – the largest crowd to ever attend a team practice. It was an electric atmosphere as all of those on hand also got to watch the stadium roof open and then close.
Quinn said that the added energy inside of the building was yet another way to evaluate how the rookies and younger players would respond.
“To have under, let’s call it, the watchful eye of 60,000 and see how they perform, yeah, I’m definitely looking for that,” Quinn said. “Are they going to stay within the system and true to what we’re saying or will the external forces have an impact?”
1. Julio is here and never intended to miss
After weeks and months of speculation on whether or not Julio Jones would be here for training camp, the Falcons quelled any concerns on the eve of training camp when they announced (very) late last Wednesday night that their star receiver would report.
And Jones, interestingly enough, said that he expected to be at camp all along.
“I was already going to come here,” Jones said. “They took care of that. I knew we were going to get it handled. I talked to Mr. Blank as well (Thursday) and I had reiterated what he had said, that I was going to be a Falcon forever.”
Jones, unlike last preseason when he was working his way back from an offseason foot surgery, is now fully healthy and has been on the field every single day – and that’s a big deal as he and the rest of the Falcons begin their second season under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.