Wednesday was a hot and muggy day in Flowery Branch, but there was no threat of rain, so the large number of fans who showed up got to see an entire minicamp practice, and it was a good one.
The general schedule for minicamp open practices is similar to training camp. team starts by warming up, generally on the field farther from where the fans sit. Then the team moves into drills. Sometimes these are position-specific drills, or special teams drills--like punt blocking, or coverage. Then they stretch, and then they pit the offense against the defense, either in 7-on-7 drills or 11-on-11 drills. There are usually some other position-specific drills sprinkled in there, like blocking technique for offensive linemen and tight ends, and they usually do some red zone drills, also, which are similar to the normal 11-on-11 drills, except that they're trying to score. There's no contact allowed, although sometimes it comes pretty close, because, hey, it's football.
Many readers had questions about the defense, and that is primarily what I focused on yesterday.
Osi Umenyiora is a hard worker in practice. You can tell that he's putting a lot of effort into grasping the scheme. He lined up on the left and the right. Sometimes Biermann was coming off of the other edge, but more frequently, Biermann was lined up at outside linebacker. At one point, the defensive front was Jonathan Babineaux at defensive end, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry inside, and Osi on the other edge. Babs actually got really good push off the edge. Not surprisingly, we can probably expect Mike Nolan to get creative with the defensive line this season.
Knowing that the Falcons need some of their young defensive line talent to step up this season, it was refreshing to see that Malliciah Goodman and Cliff Matthews, both of whom primarily took second team snaps, both had really nice technique and relentless effort.
As far as the linebackers, Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas, both back from offseason injuries, looked to be operating at 100%. Akeem Dent took the first team snaps at middle linebacker, and Brian Banks took a lot of the second team snaps and looked solid. You can tell he's putting in the extra work to get up to speed.
I'm not sure if Thomas DeCoud was injured, or what the deal was, but Charles Mitchell took most of the first team snaps at free safety, and looked just fine. Shann Schillinger took some first team snaps, too, and he's a completely different player under Mike Nolan. Schillinger has the size to be a hybrid linebacker/safety, and he struggled under Brian Van Gorder, but seems to have a much better grasp of the defense and the speed of the game under Mike Nolan. Speaking of safeties, a couple of the defensive formations had William Moore rushing the passer, and he was successful doing it.
Both Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford looked good in coverage. Asante Samuel got mildly injured when he laid out for a ball, but all indications suggest that he's fine today, which is good, because you don't want a starter getting injured in minicamp, that's dumb. We saw a lot of good effort from the young cornerbacks. Peyton Thompson, who stood out in training camp and was on Atlanta's practice squad last season, had an interception, and it seemed like Asante was more excited about it than he was. Robert McClain was a factor in the nickel, and he continues to impress.
The amoeba defense is in full effect, and Atlanta's defense is feisty. It didn't matter if it was first string, second string or third string guys on the field, there was a lot of chatter and a lot of swagger.
Based on what we saw yesterday, it seems like the current starters on defense are:
Thomas DeCoud, probably, although Charles Mitchell and Shann Schillinger took his snaps
On offense, Steven Jackson is just a phenomenal upgrade for Atlanta's running game. His versatility as a rusher or a receiver, his strength and his quickness will make him very difficult to defend. It's honestly almost unfair to the other teams.
Dominique Davis seems entrenched in the backup quarterback spot at this point, and he looks great so far. A couple of balls sailed on him, but he's generally accurate. He has good arm strength. Undrafted free agent Seth Doege seemed to get more reps than 7th round draft choice Sean Renfree, which was interesting.
Roddy White and Julio Jones both look outstanding. How the WR roster spots will shake out beyond those two is anyone's guess at this point. Harry Douglas looks to be developing better chemistry with Matt Ryan. I kind of like Rashad Evans, an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State, and Darius Johnson, an undrafted free agent out of Southern Methodist. On one reception, Johnson was fully covered and lost track of where he was supposed to turn on the route, and still managed to turn and make a beautiful catch.
At tight end, Chase Coffman has been really impressive. He's just getting great separation and making catch after catch. Levine Toilolo got pushed around a little bit in pass blocking, but he's still adjusting to the speed of the game, and will get better. I also saw him make a couple of good catches.
Kroy Biermann exhibited great leadership during special teams coverage drills. Fullback Devonte Campbell was struggling with technique and positioning, and Biermann stopped to walk him through it.
The girls in front of me must have been huge Julio Jones fans, because when he hit the field, one of them was literally shaking and crying. I felt like I was 12 again and at a New Kids on the Block concert.
Matt Ryan is a great quarterback, but not a great receiver. Julio tossed him the ball during drills; it bounced off Ryan's hands like they were made of stone.
On the sidelines, it's nice to see how Steven Jackson has been welcomed into this team. He has good chemistry and rapport with Matt Ryan and the receivers off the field, which helps on the field.
One of the most noteworthy things about minicamp is watching young players try to adjust to the speed of the game. With the special teams coverage drill, special teams coach Keith Armstrong starts the drill at walk-through speed, and then with each repetition it gets progressively faster, and you see clearly the difference between the rookies and veterans. Minicamp is still so early in the development of these young players, so it is a big adjustment.
I'm leaving momentarily for the last open practice of mandatory minicamp. I'll try to check the comments while I'm there to answer any questions about what's happening today, and I'll have a recap of today's practice up tomorrow.