The Falcons put the pads away for Wednesday's practice, the second of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp, but the energy remained high.
Atlanta has made it a point to add depth at some crucial positions, and today reflected that investment. The Falcons appear to be better positioned with their depth than they have been in some time.
"There's definitely competition in the room," cornerback Isaiah Oliver said of his position group after practice. "I think it's going to make us a lot better for it. Three corners on most plays; four guys kind of fighting for those three spots, but I think it's going to be good for us. It's going to bring the best out of us."
Injuries, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, have hampered the Falcons in recent seasons but they've also provided opportunities for younger players to gain crucial in-game experience. That's benefitted players like Damontae Kazee and Foye Oluokun, who both figure to have big roles for Atlanta this season.
Kazee's emergence and Keanu Neal's return from injury alongside Ricardo Allen give the Falcons a lot of versatility and experience at safety, allowing those three players to work in tandem and keep each other fresh. Similarly, veteran additions at both linebacker and cornerback, have resulted in the quality of play remaining fairly high while players rotate in and out.
The Falcons haven't been able to fully maximize their elite players during their two-year playoff drought in part because of some deficiencies at certain positions on the roster. We've only seen two practices thus far, so take this with a grain of salt, but that shouldn't be the case in 2020.
Todd Gurley still has plenty of bounce in his step
Perhaps it was the extra rest day he received on Tuesday, but Gurley looked springy while out on the field. He took an early carry during an 11-on-11 period and bounced it all the way to the outside before cutting upfield and racing away from the defense.
Gurley's vision and one-cut ability have always been staples of his All-Pro game, and he showed that combination out on the field Wednesday. Additionally, Ito Smith and Brian Hill have both had great moments when carrying the ball. The most impressive running back on Wednesday, however, was Qadree Ollison.
The second-year back made big plays as both a runner and a receiver, providing glimpses of his acceleration and shiftiness. He became the team's go-to goal line running back down the stretch last year, but it wouldn't be shocking to see him carve out an even bigger role.
Isaiah Oliver looks comfortable and confident
A lightning rod for fan criticism early during the 2019 season, Oliver was one of the most improved players during the team's 6-2 turnaround after the bye week. The confidence he gained during his strong finish has remained with him for the beginning of camp.
"I feel good," Oliver said. "I feel like right now, on this day, I feel like I'm at a better spot than I was at this time last year, which is always good. Coming off the end of the season, playing well, the whole defense was playing a lot better the second half of the season, so I feel like we're all just that much more confident."
Multiple coaches have pointed to Oliver playing with greater connection between his hands and his feet, pointing to an improvement in his technique. Oliver appears to be trusting his body more and relying on his smooth athleticism to anticipate routes and stay in a receiver's hip pocket. There's a long way to go yet, but for a player who needs to put it all together in Year 3, Oliver appears to be well on his way.
Building depth in the trenches
On the defensive line, rotational players such as John Cominsky and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner have strung together back-to-back good practices, showing improvement in their respective games. Deadrin Senat, a former third-round pick who was inactive for much of last season, has also made a handful of plays in full-team drills.
Along the offensive line, the position battles of recent preseasons have clearly made Matt Gono a better and more versatile player. That versatility is especially important on the offensive line, where attrition can happen more frequently, and newcomers such as Justin McCray and rookie Matt Hennessy further bolsters Atlanta's depth in front of Matt Ryan.
Kurt Benkert's growth is apparent
After making a good first impression in last year's Hall of Fame Game, during which he sustained a season-ending injury, Benkert is again off to a great start. He looks more comfortable leading the offense when he's in during full-team drills, going through progressions and keeping the play alive when needed.
Benkert made an absolutely beautiful throw to tight end Khari Lee while rolling out to his right on Wednesday, and he also threw a touchdown pass during a red zone drill, putting the ball low where only his receiver could get it. His improvement is yet another example of how the Falcons have cultivated depth throughout the roster.
More camp observations
The communication in the secondary has been stellar so far in camp. There haven't been any noticeable lapses in assignment or free releases from receivers due to confusion from the defenders.
It was a good practice for James Carpenter, who handled some of the Falcons' top pass rushers in one-on-one drills early in the afternoon.
One of the few players who did beat Carpenter in that one-on-one period, however, was John Cominsky, who has impressed thus far.
A.J. Terrell has said lining up against players like Julio Jones will make him a better player, and the two have faced each other quite a bit the past few days. Terrell has held his own.
Matt Ryan scrambled for a touchdown during a full-team period. Who said the veteran quarterback can't still run the ball when needed?
Josh Hawkins had a nice interception on the sideline in the end zone, keeping both feet in bounds while fully outstretched.
Rookie Jalen McCleskey had a great one-handed catch while running a crossing route during an 11-on-11 period, and Russell Gage made a phenomenal one-handed catch on the very last route he ran before practice ended.