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From Julio to Kazee, 10 things we've learned about the Falcons after four days of camp

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- After four days of training camp, Falcons players got the day off on Monday.

They'll get some treatment, rest, maybe dig into their playbooks and watch a little film. And at least one player will be getting a massage before practices resume again bright and early Tuesday morning.


So, what have learned about the defending NFC champs so far? Let's recap the biggest moments and emerging storylines from the first few days of the 2017 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.

1. Julio is practicing and says his 'foot is great'

There's been a number of big plays and early surprises so far in camp, but perhaps the best thing Falcons fans have seen so far is No. 11 out there running around on the practice fields and catching passes. Julio Jones is back, albeit somewhat limited still, but says his "foot is great" following offseason surgery in early March.

Jones has participated in individual and offensive drills, but has yet to go during full-team activities.

"You know, we're just being smart," Jones said. "I still get my conditioning in, I run routes, I do things, I'm in and out of the huddle, I'm in the scheme, just everything right now. Today was the first day of pads, I'll probably do a little more tomorrow. You know, we're just one day at a time with me. They know what I can do, we're not here to rush anything or anything like that. But the overall goal is, obviously, to be ready to go by the start of the season."

Just in case you need some visual evidence of Jones doing what he does best, take a look:

2. Aggressive defense sets the tone early with big hits and plays

If there's been one constant throughout the first four days of camp it's been the aggressive play of the defense, especially the secondary. Granted, it's very early – and only two of the four practices have been in full pads – but the defense has been creating some havoc.

From interceptions and pass break-ups to forced fumbles and knocked down passes at the line of scrimmage, Marquand Manuel's unit has more than held its own.

Coach Dan Quinn said that cornerback Robert Alford – who already has a pair of interceptions and is making his presence known all over the field – is "stronger than he’s been in a while." Safety Keanu Neal has making plenty of big hits, like this one when he laid the boom on Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman.

And Deion Jones has been putting his pass coverage skills on display as well, like this break-up of a Matt Ryan throw to Terron Ward.

Several other players have stood out on defense, including some rookies (more on that later). We all know these things go back and forth, and it won't be long before we gave some days when the offense is having its way and clicking on all cylinders. But for now, the defense is playing with lots of energy – and it's been fun to watch.

3. Kazee is transitioning from corner to safety – and turning heads

Rookie defensive back Damontae Kazee, a fifth-round pick out of San Diego State, is living up to the ball-hawking reputation he established in college. The 5-foot-11, 174-pounder has made his presence felt with multiple pass break-ups and a pair of interceptions.

On Sunday, Kazee picked off quarterback Matt Ryan, on a deep ball intended for tight end Joshua Perkins. And back on Friday, Kazee hauled in a tipped Ryan pass for his first interception in camp.

When asked to grade his performance through the first four days of camp during a Q&A session on Sunday, Kazee surprisingly gave himself a low mark.

"Obviously I'd grade myself as not where I need to be at right now," Kazee said. "I still need to progress. I'd give myself a 'D' right now."

Ryan, who said the young guys have "done a good job" in camp, has been impressed.

"They're aggressive, learning the system," Ryan said. "The one thing you see is great effort. I mean, going after the ball non-stop. They give great effort towards the football, so I've been impressed with what they've done."

4. Gabriel could be the Falcons' punt returner in 2017

Coach Dan Quinn confirmed that Gabriel will be getting strong consideration to be the team's punt returner during training camp. Gabriel returned punts during the special teams portion of practice, alongside wide receiver Andre Roberts and a few others on Friday.

"That's one of the jobs we can look at and it creates more touches," Quinn said. "So if that's an opportunity to get more touches for him, it's something we definitely want to look at."

Gabriel possesses the lateral quickness needed at this position so it's not surprising that that Falcons are taking a hard look at utilizing him in that spot.

"If I can go back there and make a big play for the team, I feel like if I have the opportunity I need to advantage of it," Gabriel said.

5. Sanu appears to be in midseason form

Speaking of receivers, Mohamed Sanu is quietly having a solid training camp. With Julio Jones (foot) and Taylor Gabriel (lower leg) limited in practice because they're slowly working their way back from injuries, Sanu has been Matt Ryan's go-to guy – and he's filled the first four days of camp with spectacular plays.

Jones said Sanu could be more of a deep threat in 2017, and he has displayed to the ability to just that, scoring touchdowns in a variety of ways: slants, posts and deep routes. He even pulled down a Hail Mary near the end of Saturday's practice.

"Yeah, I mean, Mo brings a lot. Obviously, you guys see the plays that he makes on the field, but the day to day energy that he brings on the practice field - he's a high-energy guy," Ryan said.

6. Fuller is out for the season with a knee injury

For the second year in a row, Devin Fuller's season has unfortunately ended before it ever really got started.

The Falcons' 6-foot, 194-pound receiver tore his ACL in what coach Dan Quinn described as a "non-contact injury" during Friday's training camp practice.

"It was really disappointing," Quinn said. "It's one of those times where you give the guy a hug and tell him 'I know this is another setback for you and we appreciate the work that you put in to get back. And from there the next step for him is surgery. Who knows what that process looks like having been down that road before."

Fuller also suffered a season-ending injury last preseason, when he suffered a shoulder injury against the Dolphins in the Falcons' third preseason game.

7. First-round pick McKinley looks healthy, but still limited

Takkarist McKinley, the Falcons' first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, is expected to form an imposing pass-rushing duo with reigning NFL sack leader Vic Beasley, but his recovery from shoulder surgery has limited what he can do so far – and the team is just fine with that.

McKinley has been participating with the defensive linemen during the individual drills and, overall, has looked strong going through his first training camp practice.

"It felt good. It felt great," McKinley said. "It felt great to be out there with the team and just get back to football. I mean, my last game was in November. It's good to be back to football." 

8. The battle at right guard is heating up, but it's still way too early

One of the most talked about position battles heading into training camp is the one taking place at right guard between Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland. And it's one that coach Dan Quinn expects to last for at least a few preseason games.

Things intensified during Sunday's practice, but it's still way too early to draw any conclusions as far as who might have the early edge.

The offensive line is still rotating players at right guard, including Garland, Schweitzer and Sean Harlow to lock down the position between center Alex Mack and right tackle Ryan Schraeder.

"I was happy on the first day, looking back" Quinn said of the battle on the line of scrimmage. "Can we play really tough, really physical at the line of scrimmage (in the) run game (and) pass protection. Offensively, it's all 11 the way we come off the ball. That's the intent we're looking for, so I'm always trying to keep that in mind."

9. Coleman's role could be expanding in the passing game

Running Tevin Coleman was the most productive receiving running back on a per snap basis in 2016 and the Falcons appear determined to take advantage of his pass-catching skills. Early on in camp, Coleman has lined up in a number of spots, including out in the flat.

"We have confidence in him to catch it," Quinn said. "He's really worked hard at establishing his receiving skills. It's his long speed that can really create some match ups. He can fly. So when a linebacker or safety is there, you better be on your game."

We expected to see a few wrinkles in offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian's offense, and this might be one of them. Stay tuned.

10. The case of the missing earring has finally been laid to rest

One question that several players were asked following the first day of practice was about Julio Jones and his missing earring – which was reportedly worth $100,000.

And, as expected, it was the first question Jones was asked when he met with reporters.

"I didn't hire anyone like a dive team," Jones said. "I did not do that. It was insured. I was fine. I didn't get thrown off anything. I jumped off the Jet Ski. So, let's clear it up."

Not even center Alex Mack could escape being asked about it. His response, though, was … unexpected.

"I have yet to lose my $100,00 earrings," Mack said. "If I go Jet Skiing I now know what to do."

Yep, lesson learned.

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