FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- This time next week we'll be talking about all things mandatory minicamp... But we're not there yet.
This week, the Falcons held their final voluntary OTA practices, with Wednesday's practice being open to the media. The day began with some pretty heavy news, but ended with some fun redzone stands. Let's dive in.
Notes, observations from practice:
Disheartening news: Arthur Smith confirmed prior to the start of practice that Avery Williams did indeed suffer a season-ending knee injury. He will have a procedure done on Thursday to repair his ACL, Smith said.
If you read our previous notes and observations from the Falcons Friday practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, you know Williams' non-contact injury was something we were concerned about, then. This news is a blow to the Falcons special teams particularly. Williams was one of the best punt return specialists in the league last year. That presence will be missed.
Where to go from here: Asked about what the competition for punt returner will look like without Williams, Smith said it'll be an opportunity for a few different players to step in. He specifically named players like Mike Hughes, Dee Alford, Penny Hart and Josh Ali as guys who could compete for the spot.
When the special teams portion of Wednesday's practice came around, though, the Falcons had some younger players give it a go at returning punts. This included first-round pick Bijan Robinson, who Smith was seen coaching up to during the drill, Alford, WR Keilahn Harris, RB Carlos Washington Jr. and WR Zay Malone.
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Bubble, bubble: Even though we're a long way from the start of training camp, and even further away from a 53-man roster cut down, it is always fun to highlight some players (even now) who could be a Cinderella story come camp. Take a guy like former Alabama receiver Slade Bolden. Bolden made a couple flashy plays during the 7-on-7 periods of practice, both coming in quick succession of each other.
Quarterback Taylor Heinicke connected with Bolden in the back of the endzone for a touchdown that showed Bolden's tracking ability, hands and field awareness. That moment was soon followed by another Bolden catch about 10-yards out in heavy traffic that he came away with. Though the Falcons are not particularly looking for a player of his specific size and skillset right now (they did go out and get Scotty Miller in free agency after all), it wouldn't be surprising if Bolden competes on the bubble through camp.
OK Jack: Since Ryan Nielsen was hired as the Falcons next defensive coordinator, I've really wondered about how he planned to use DeAngelo Malone. Previously a late-round pick as a defensive end, Malone didn't really fit what I considered to be the look of Nielsen's preferred edge presence. When looking at players like Bud Dupree or Calais Campbell (or even a heftier Arnold Ebiketie) who's frames are as big as they come, Malone's smaller frame didn't seem to fit.
Well, his potential usage in Nielsen's scheme became a bit clearer on Wednesday with Malone being utilized in certain packages as the Jack. It didn't happen all the time, but it was happening enough to take notice. Malone was even getting reps at the spot with the would-be first-team defense, prior to the defense switching into their nickel package with Alford. It went without saying that Malone's role in this defense would changed with Nielsen coming in, but it's nice to see the plan for Malone in action.
OMDee: We've talked about Dee Alford a bit already, but so far through OTAs I've come to really notice how much the Falcons rely on him as a role player. He's taking all of the first-team nickel reps (context here is important though as Hughes hasn't been at the last two voluntary open practices). But we've also previously mentioned how Alford is set to be a top contender for the punt returner role that has been left vacant by Williams. The longer Alford has been in Atlanta the more he's shown that he can be an asset in a couple different roles.
The matchup that'll be the highlight of camp: I have to say, it's quite fun watching Drake London and Jeff Okudah go at it on the field. It'll be even more fun when pads go on. These two were matched up with each other a few times on Wednesday and each guy had his moment in the sun. Okudah's came first as he got good position on London to get a hand on the ball for a PBU when London cut back to the ball down the sideline. The defense - Nielsen and Jerry Gray included - were pretty fired up about the play.
London got Okudah back, though, in 11-on-11 later, using his length to dive in front of Okudah to scoop a low throw for a 10-yard gain. If you can, this'll be a matchup to have a front row seat for come August.
Your weekly offensive line update: Nothing was really out of the ordinary here, everything previously reported still remains. Matt Hennessy continues to take the first-team left guard reps, but right now its more interesting to see the developments with the second team. Ryan Neuzil was taking majority of the second-team reps at center on Wednesday with Kyle Hinton at left guard. This is notable because the Falcons still have their younger interior linemen (Matthew Bergeron, Jovaughn Gwyn and Justin Shaffer) working together with the final rotation.
The day's best moment: Wednesday was a day for red zone action as the Falcons team periods all happened inside the 20. There were a few notable plays: Bolden's previously stated long touchdown catch from Heinicke, an acrobatic grab from Jonnu Smith which he brought down before tip toeing in the back of the endzone for a touchdown. But I love chaos, so my personal favorite was a my-tears-ricochet moment for Jeff Okudah.
Khadarel Hodge was the intended receiver but the ball sailed just a tad too high and instead of catching it, Hodge only got a finger on it. With the ball quickly descending after the tip, it bounced off of a falling Okudah only to be tipped back up in the air for Bolden to hop over the cornerback, grabbing the ball for the touchdown. Call it a tough break for Okudah, but a lucky break for Bolden and the offense.