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What we've learned about Falcons camp since pads went on

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Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell #24 defends against tight end Kyle Pitts #8 during AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Thursday August 5, 2021. (Photo by Kara Durrette/Atlanta Falcons)

The Falcons have gotten a lot accomplished already this training camp. They practiced nine times in 10 days leading into Sunday's respite, with four padded practices under their belt.

That includes Saturday's session, essentially a scrimmage without live tackling, in front of an estimated 27,000 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

We analyzed the first stretch between off days. Now let's take a look back at what we learned from the second wave, when the pads came on and the intensity increased.

1. A.J. Terrell already locked in

The second-year cornerback looks poised to make a huge jump in 2021. He has been awesome in camp with a standout play (or two, or three) in every practice. That doesn't account for the steadiness seen on every rep, where he makes receiver life hard no matter who he's matched up against.

The Falcons have rotated most everyone to A.J. Terrell's side to help both him and the receivers get better playing each other. Showdowns with rookie tight end Kyle Pitts are particularly fun to watch, with Terrell often finding ways to best someone who is so tough to cover.

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He has been a dominant force to this point, which is exactly what the Falcons need as the reshape their secondary.

"It's hard to say anything surprises you with him because he's so talented," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "Where I was most impressed with him last year was seeing how much better he was at the end of the year over the beginning. There was a constant evolution, and it still hasn't stopped. That wasn't surprising, but it's the most encouraging thing I've seen. That growth hasn't plateaued. He keeps getting a little bit better every day.

"His pattern recognition is excellent. I have been around some good ones…guys that really did a great job on pattern reading, and he's very good at that. He's good at individual matchups, one-on-ones. We see that every day.

2. Arthur Smith's true commitment to competition

All head coaches talk about fostering competition during camp. That's aimed at getting the best from players while avoiding complacency. Often, though, it doesn't really change the depth chart.

Smith has shown recently that competition talk isn't lip service. We saw that ring true when Willie Beavers took over for Jalen Mayfield at right tackle on Saturday. We have seen that in Adetokunbo Ogundeji's ascent to the first unit, in Drew Dalman getting a crack at left guard and other instances where guys playing well on lower units get a chance to join the starting crew.

Smith said those first-team reps are earned, then bestowed, with all participants knowing where they stand. Every job is based solely on merit. Players throughout the depth chart respect that coaching style, and it's refreshing to see. We've also been able to see some more unheralded players get a shot at competing against established starters, which helps paint a clearer picture of how those guys stack up.

That, in addition to preseason game tape, should give coaches and the front office an excellent read on which players comprise the right 53 men for this roster.

3. Offensive line still in flux

Kaleb McGary is getting closer to coming off the physically unable to perform list. The offensive line won't solidify until he's back in the mix, with great uncertainty at right tackle that could have a domino effect on the left guard spot.

Jalen Mayfield has been the first-team right tackle most of camp, with Beavers taking over there on Saturday. McGary has started there the past two years and could well assume that role again when healthy. Would Mayfield move inside and battle Josh Andrews at left guard? Will Dalman have a say in that, or is he prepping for a gig as a swing interior lineman? We still have time to iron things out, but the faster it comes together, the better for Smith's offense. That will help the front five form the cohesiveness required to be impactful during the regular season.

4. Don't forget about Fabian

Terrell gets so much attention these days, and rightfully so. Lost in that and all the talk about young defensive backs emerging is the fact Fabian Moreau has taken most every first-team rep opposite Terrell. The free-agent signing has been a steady presence on his side, which is required especially if opposing quarterbacks decide to stay away from Terrell. He could see a ton of targets and must be stable and avoid major, costly lapses.

We also haven't talked much about the slot cornerback spot, where Isaiah Oliver has seen tons of time. Keep an eye on that one as we move forward.

5. Pass rush needs a boost from Fowler

Dante Fowler is set to return to practice on Monday. That's a good thing that should provide a B12 shot to the defensive front. The Falcons currently have Grady Jarrett's interior excellence and several solid members of a rotation, but a dynamic presence off the edge would be helpful. Fowler can provide that when he’s at his best.

Smith said Fowler will have to earn his role in Dean Pees' scheme, but that would ideally be a three-down presence strong against the run and pass. Even being impactful on passing downs would help the Falcons create some heat. It's worth watching how he fits into the defensive rotation both upon return and as we get closer to the regular season.

The Atlanta Falcons held their 'Dirty Birds' Open Practice on Saturday in front of fans on their home turf. Take a look at the best images from Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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