FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Like many of you, I, too, had many questions going into this Falcons training camp.
That was nearly five weeks ago now.
Way back when, there was a new staff implementing a new scheme. They had retained some players, but also brought a good chunk of guys in on one-year deals, too. How was all of this going to fit together? What would it look like by the end of the preseason?
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The day before training camp began in late July, to usher in the first practice while covering the Falcons for The Athletic, I listed 10 questions I had hoped to answer by the last practice. My intent was always to come back to those questions to see if I could, indeed, answer them. So, with the last training camp practice having come and gone, the time has arrived to do just that. And while I can't answer all of these questions just yet, it's interesting to see how much has come into focus in just over a month's time.
What will Mike Davis' workload look like?
This is a question that will go unanswered for at least a couple more weeks. Davis was never going to be let loose in any of these preseason games. Instead, Arthur Smith needed to evaluate the other running backs on his roster: Caleb Huntley, Javian Hawkins and D’Onta Foreman once he was brought in. Of the three, Huntley has emerged, as Hawkins was cut and there's still more to evaluate with Foreman. We've seen our fair share of these players, but not Davis, which was to be expected this preseason. However, the repercussion of that is that we still don't know what Davis' workload will look like, and the impact guys like Qadree Ollison and Cordarrelle Patterson have on his carries.
What can Erik Harris and Duron Harmon be for this defense?
We've learned that both Harris and Harmon are important figures of this secondary. Smith pointed out early in training camp that their experience and leadership have already gone a long way with this relatively young and impressionable safety group. The Falcons had to rebuild this position group this offseason and, in doing so, brought in Harris and Harmon on one-year deals. It was initially unclear just how important they would be to this 2021 operation, but training camp has shown there's a lot being put on their shoulders as starters and veterans of this position group.
What's the best fit on the offensive line?
You ready for this? Here's the breakdown I would put my money on starting Day 1:
Left tackle: Jake Matthews | Left guard: Josh Andrews | Center: Matt Hennessy | Right guard: Chris Lindstrom | Right tackle: Kaleb McGary
It was touch-and-go there for a while with McGary, who missed the first week of camp with an injury. Rookie Jalen Mayfield held down McGary's spot while he worked his way back to 100 percent, but once McGary got there, Mayfield went back to working behind Andrews at guard. Speaking of Andrews, he's been the go-to at left guard since he was brought in this offseason. Hennessy steps into Alex Mack's vacated shoes at center. Matt Ryan praised Hennessy's preseason work, saying he's ready for this extended role. As for Lindstrom and Matthews, there was never really a question that these two would be where they are.
How much will Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst line up together?
A lot. Hurst had arguably the best quote of training camp when he said, “It’s not Hayden Hurst vs. Kyle Pitts. It’s Hayden Hurst and Kyle Pitts.” And that's exactly what it has been for weeks. The two tight ends are frequently placed in personnel packages together. They're both favored targets. The expectations for the two of them – separately and together – are high.
Who's going to help out Grady Jarrett?
The Falcons hoped it would be Marlon Davidson when they drafted him. They hoped it would be Dante Fowler when they acquired him in the 2020 offseason. But neither were healthy enough last season to be much help. This year, they're both hoping that narrative changes. Jarrett always has high expectations for himself, and this year is no different. It's behind him and beside him where the expectations get a little foggy. Dean Pees has challenged Davidson to be the guy they see on film when they turn on his college tape. Davidson said one of his goals for 2021 is to be someone Jarrett can rely on. As for Fowler, he took a pay cut to stay in Atlanta. He had to miss the first days of training camp while on the COVID-19/reserve list, but returned to the first team fairly quickly. Along with fellow outside linebackers Steven Means and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, the pressure is on to collectively get better in pass rush in order to take some of the pressure off Jarrett. Speaking of which…
Can Pees' scheme make an immediate impact on the pass rush?
Owner Arthur Blank praised the Pees hire on the first day of training camp, saying he was excited to see pass rush coming from… well… everywhere. And Pees has displayed that throughout the first two preseason games. The best example to date came against Tennessee, when safety Jaylinn Hawkins came untouched through the middle of the protection to come up with a sack. That's the type of impact Pees will have as a play caller. We haven't seen what the first team defense looks like live, but something tells me it won't be dissimilar.
The wide receivers and the Atlanta Falcons are back from Miami and preparing for the Browns in Flowery Branch on Day 19 of 2021 AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.
Should fans be excited about Russell Gage?
Yes. As the No. 2 receiver behind Calvin Ridley, Gage is someone who has worked his way up and into the spot he now acquires. The hope for Gage is picking up right where he left off in 2020. He has made some solid plays throughout training camp, and is right beside and behind Ridley in every drill. His role on this offense increased in 2021, and it'll be interesting to see how that shakes out.
Can Cordarrelle Patterson make an impact on the return game?
That's why the Falcons got him. Was it not? You don't bring in someone like Patterson and not have the expectation that he will change the return game for you. However, we haven't had a chance to see Patterson live yet, which was also to be expected, but it does mean we don't quite know the answer to this question.
Can the secondary have a bend-but-don't-break look to it?
The Falcons had to figure out who would play opposite AJ Terrell. Turns out, Fabian Moreau is the guy. He hasn't been flashy during camp, but he also hasn't made very many mistakes. For a corner, that's an accomplishment in and of itself. Isaiah Oliver has been acting as the fifth defensive back, playing more inside than he did last year. With Harris and Harmon deep, and Hawkins, TJ Green, Chris Williamson and Richie Grant emerging as depth pieces behind them, the secondary rotation is much clearer than it was in July. The only secondary questions that really remain: 1. how productive this group can be in live situations, and 2) where does Kendall Sheffield fit into this group, if he fits at all? He's been out of practice for majority of training camp, and others have moved in to fill his previous role.
How quickly can Arthur Smith turn things around?
It's still way too early to call, but know this: Players are buying into Smith and his staff. At this point in the grand scheme, that's really all you could ask for.