Thursday's practice went a little differently than the previous days have. With the players officially ratifying the CBA, free agents were finally able to practice. The Falcons flipped their padded morning practice into the evening to ensure the newcomers would be able to get in some official reps before the Friday Night Lights scrimmage Friday evening.
The practice was pushed back an hour and went into the evening, the sun setting as the players walked off the field. For a few of them, it was their first practice while the rest of their teammates had been going at it for a week.
Free agent acquisition Ray Edwards joined Mike Peterson, Stephen Nicholas, Eric Weems, Brent Grimes, Justin Blalock, Tyson Clabo, Vance Walker and John Parker Wilson as players practicing for the first time Thursday. Many of them had been with their teammates in meetings since agreeing to their contracts, just unable to practice on the field.
"That was tough," Blalock said. "It's been a long time since I missed any kind of organized activity. Probably since college. It really does stink to be fully able and willing to practice but have the restraints on. It felt good to be out there today running around."
Head coach Mike Smith said he was easing all the new players in after missing twelve practice sessions. He felt confident that getting in the padded practice Thursday afternoon would allow all of them to participate, although limited, in the team scrimmage on Friday.
For Edwards, it was the first time in the NFL that he's practiced somewhere other than Minnesota. His primary focus was adjusting to playing the right side of the defensive line.
Edwards, Clabo, Nicholas and Blalock inked long-term deals with Atlanta, ensuring that they'll likely be Falcons for years to come. That sense of security is valuable.
"The prospect of being here for a long time is very exciting, albeit nothing is guaranteed," Blalock said. "I do like the idea of being around here for a long time. I think we're really onto something good."
As I often try to do when he's in town, I had a chance to speak with ESPN's NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas this evening. He's making the rounds over this week and next, visiting the Falcons and their NFC South opponents. He's already written about some of Atlanta's keys on defense this year and his annual Camp Confidential report on the Falcons will be coming in the next few days.
Yasinskas hasn't seen a lot of Atlanta's practices in his two days here but what he has seen has jumped out at him. The first thing he shared will echo the offseason sentiments of the franchise and what the early reports are indicating in training camp: The Falcons are taking some shots.
"One thing I've seen is a lot more balls going deep down the field," Yasinskas said. "I know that's not a coincidence. I know the Falcons are very serious about more big plays this year."
The veteran of NFC South football writing also shared a few nuggets on two rookies in camp, one of which may be a little surprising. He's liking the home run hitting ability of the running back Jacquizz Rodgers.
"Rodgers is another rookie who looks like he has some explosive ability," he said. "I know he's only a fifth-round choice but at first look, I like what I see."
One rookie that few have said anything about is the Falcons' seventh-round selection Andrew Jackson, a guard from Fresno State.
"One rookie to keep an eye on is Andrew Jackson," he said. "They think they got a steal. I heard from other personnel people around the league and they share the same opinion on Jackson."
Yasinskas felt Jackson's concerns over an ankle injury that kept him out for much of his senior year hurt Jackson's stock.
Finally, on defense came a name that Yasinskas wrote about earlier today: Peria Jerry. The 2009 first-round pick has come a long way from his knee injury in the second week of the season and it's starting to show.
"It's great to see Peria Jerry without a knee brace and moving around," he said. "I'm standing out here and flashing back to his rookie season in camp in '09 and seeing some of the things I saw then. If he can come back and be the same player the Falcons though they were getting in the draft, he'll make a huge impact on the defense."
One of the fastest guys on the field is trying to adjust to the speed of everyone else. He's also trying to learn as fast as possible.
Rodgers is confident he'll be part of the explosive offense Atlanta hopes to field this year.
For right now, he's trying to slow the game down and digest it into manageable bites each day. Until he does that, he can't play at the same speed that made him one of the most exciting players in the country last season at Oregon State.
"For the most part, I'm trying to learn the playbook," Rodgers said Thursday evening. "That's the biggest thing and get to that level where you're comfortable and can play fast and execute. Right now, I'm just trying to put in the extra work after practice and study my plays. I want to be able to go full speed once I'm on the field."
His full speed is faster than most others and that dynamic can make the rookie dangerous in Atlanta's offense. Early on, he's flashing that potential and is making good on his goal to learn as fast as he runs.
"I'm just trying to get up to speed and get used to the NFL-level speed," he said. "It's a faster game with quicker thinking. You've got to be able to digest the plays quickly and go out there and run them."
Because many peg him early on as a third-down back who specializes at pass catching, the role of pass blocker is something the 5-foot-6 back must prove he can do. So far he's hanging in there, but he's being tested.
"Blocking is something you can always get better at, learning your opponent and what moves they like to do," the back said. "I'm always working on my blocking."