ATLANTA -- The Falcons began mandatory minicamp on Tuesday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They'll practice again on Wednesday in Flowery Branch before breaking until reporting for training camp at the end of July.
All but four players on the active roster were at practice, and the Falcons had seven guys trying out this week. We dive into all of that and more in the next section.
Notes, observations from practice:
Roll call: As mentioned last week, Avery Williams is out for the year with an ACL injury so he was not in attendance on Tuesday. He underwent surgery last week according to head coach Arthur Smith. Also not in attendance for the first day of minicamp were Kyle Pitts and Caleb Huntley, both of whom are still working back to 100 percent following their in-season injuries last year. The Falcons were also without Eddie Goldman, who came out of retirement this offseason and is working back on a different track.
The Falcons hosted seven tryout guys this week, a few coming from the XFL.
Here's the full list: Chris Blair (WR), Matthew Trickett (K), Bless Austin (DB), Michael Jacobson (TE), D'Marcus Hayes (OL), Caeveon Patton (DL) and Albert Huggins (DL).
TQ's return: For the first time since his season-ending knee injury, Ta'Quon Graham made his full return to the practice field. He worked through individual drills during the final week of voluntary OTAs last week, but Tuesday's practice was the first time he'd been back in the rotation during team 11-on-11 drills. When asked about his return, Smith said physically Graham is back to where he needs to be, getting the knee cleared. It'll be the mental speed of the game that'll take time, the head coach said.
Asked about this mental adjustment, Graham said even though he's been in "the dungeon" and unable to practice (he laughed when he said this by the way), he still feels like he is keeping up with new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen's scheme. Graham has been in Atlanta for the offseason programs since they began. He's now able to do more physically, and for that, he's excited.
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Offensive line Pt. II: We don't really need to talk much about the first-team offensive line considering it's a group that feels set in stone. It's the No. 2s I want to focus on for a second. In case you're curious, here's the group that was working together for much of the 11-on-11 portion of practice on Tuesday (from left to right): Jalen Mayfield, Justin Shaffer, Ryan Neuzil, Matthew Bergeron and Tyler Vrabel. It was an interesting mix of linemen and one I'll be even more curious to see come August.
Mr. Blank stops by: Owner Arthur Blank dropped by Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the entirety of the Falcons first minicamp practice. He made his rounds, shaking hands and chatting up various players and coaches, but he spent a lot of time watching the defensive line drills. He chatted for a while with Grady Jarrett and Calais Campbell. He shook hands with Graham, seeming to welcome him back to the fold. Of all the positions on this Falcons team, the defensive line has undergone the biggest change. It would seem Blank was looking forward to seeing those changes up close.
Blank and Campbell already have a connection with the veteran defensive end, after a long phone call about charitable efforts and community impact helped convince Campbell to sign with the Falcons.
Blank and Jarrett have been close for a long time, so Blank finding him and Campbell makes some sense. Practice interactions aren't completely new. Blank is most always engaged in team activities when he's around, taking time to check in with Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot when there's time.
Return man shuffle: With Williams out for the year the competition to take over punt return duties is in full swing. On Tuesday, players like Bijan Robinson, Dee Alford, Penny Hart, Mike Hughes, Scotty Miller, Josh Ali, Zay Malone and Keilahn Harris were all returning punts during the special teams portion of practice.
CP's minicamp return completes RB group: Cordarrelle Patterson practiced with the 2023 Falcons for the first time on Tuesday during mandatory minicamp's opening session. The 32-year old looked as explosive and dynamic as ever working with the offense in these non-padded sessions, rotating in with Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier, fellow feature backs who are roughly 10 years younger.
"Just looking at film and seeing how much fun they're having out there is just awesome," Patterson said. "I couldn't wait to get out there today and have fun with those guys and bring some energy to the team."
Patterson wasn't taken back when Robinson was drafted at No. 8 overall. He's excited about a role that might see him move around more, and believes the talent and versatility in his position group should make the Falcons offense fun.
"I've talked to Bijan and I've been watching practice [film] every day, seeing the things he and Tyler are doing," Patterson said. "It's great. It's going to be a fun year, man. I'm glad we got [Robinson] he's going to bring so much to this offense. He's going to be great for us."
Battle for the nickel: When the Falcons signed Mike Hughes to a two-year deal this offseason, I prematurely assumed that it meant he was the nickel in Nielsen's defense without qualm or quarrel, but it would seem he has quite the competition brewing with Dee Alford.
In the previous two voluntary OTA practices that were open to the media, Hughes was not in attendance, so it was Alford taking a vast majority of the first-team reps at nickel. But when Hughes and the veterans returned for minicamp, it was still Alford with the would-be first-team. With Alford and Hughes trying their hand as punt returners and both vying for the primary nickel spot, this may be an under-the-radar competition to remember when training camp heats up.
Quote of the day: OK. This was difficult to choose between because I had two favorites. However, I am including both because they have to do with the same subject: David Onyemata.
The first quote came from Smith, who was asked about Onyemata in his press conference before practice began. Smith went on to compliment Onyemata, saying simply: "He was a pain in the ass to game plan against." Smith said he's faced Onyemata a few times between matchups with the Saints while the head coach was in Tennessee and now Atlanta. He said he's pretty pleased to no longer have to worry about Onyemata come Sundays in the fall.
The second quote came from Onyemata himself. He was asked about Jarrett holding onto the reins of this defensive front with so many new faces. Onyemata said simply: "This is still Grady's group." I think this says a lot about the way vets like Onyemata, Campbell and Bud Dupree respect Jarrett.
Scott Bair contributed to this report.