There was a great turnout for Thursday morning's final mandatory minicamp practice in Flowery Branch, and it was a beautiful day to watch some semblance of football. The team started with standard warm-ups, and then moved into some position drills and special teams drills.
Yesterday's special teams drills were to prepare players for punt returns. The players who took reps returning were Harry Douglas, Robert Alford, James Rodgers and Dominique Franks. Tim Toone did not participate in minicamp, but was on hand to observe the return specialists. Make no mistake--the special teams drills are extremely important for the young players in particular. Value as a special teams player, exhibited through effort and performance during drills in minicamp, and particularly training camp, can be the difference between making the final roster and being cut.
Elsewhere on the field, the quarterbacks were moving through some position-specific drills, and Roddy White, for the second day in a row, spent some time throwing with the quarterbacks. He actually looked pretty good. I mean, he could probably start in Cleveland or Buffalo.
In 11-on-11 drills, Matt Ryan looked, as usual, adept in the no-huddle, and was in sync with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas, and Chase Coffman continued to impress as well. I can't stress enough how impressed I am with Steven Jackson. Granted, it's a no-contact environment, but he just finds holes in the defense, and if he doesn't find holes, he makes holes. Dominique Davis, running the second team offense, looked solid. As long as he continues to look this good through preseason, I will have no qualms about him in the backup position at all. His arm strength is very good--so good, in fact, that passes sail on him occasionally--but he has good timing and anticipation, and I'm pleased with his development.
Sean Renfree took more snaps on Thursday, so recovery from his shoulder surgery (hat tip to torgo3000 on that information, I missed it) must be going well. He looked good. Undrafted free agent receivers Darius Johnson and Rashad Evans continued to impress in day three.
The running backs worked on some receiving drills, and it was impressive to see that all of the receivers the Falcons currently have on the roster seem to be skilled enough as receivers. Steven Jackson, of course, is known for his receiving ability, and Jacquizz Rodgers has shown that he's reliable as a receiver, too. The running backs also worked on some resistance and blocking drills.
The receivers worked on some 15 yard out-routes; Harry Douglas and Roddy White ran them flawlessly. Julio Jones stumbled a little, recovered, and still made the catch like a champion. Dominique Davis threw to the second-team receivers, and James Rodgers, Marcus Jackson and Martel Moore all ran crisp routes and made nice catches. Renfree, throwing to the third team receivers, had nice catches from Darius Johnson and Rashad Evans, who, as I mentioned, have stood out among the third-tier guys.
The second team offensive line drew praise from coaches for maintaining a "good pocket, good pocket" for Dominique Davis. Patrick DiMarco, an undrafted free agent fullback from South Carolina absolutely trucked over Kroy Biermann at one point. The play had shades of Quizz Rodgers/Earl Thomas from the divisional playoff round.
On defense, Osi Umenyiora was excused from yesterday's practice (as was Jason Snelling, as Snelling's grandmother had passed away), and Osi's absence let some of the younger guys get more first team snaps. I really like Malliciah Goodman and the urgency (Dimitroff's wording, not mine) he plays with off the edge. Again--it's hard to assess what this would mean in a game situation, because there's no contact permitted, but so far, Goodman lives up to Dimitroff's statement that the Falcons expect him to be prepared to start this season. I have also particularly liked the way Cliff Matthews looked in minicamp.
At linebacker, this isn't going to be a popular statement, but I loved Robert James' hustle on Thursday. Even though it was a no-contact practice, James was as physical as he could be without drawing a fine from the NFL. In other news that isn't going to be popular, Dominique Franks had a really solid day on Thursday. He rushed the passer out of the same formation William Moore rushed the passer from on Wednesday, and did it successfully. He also managed an interception.
The secondary looked pretty good across the board. Willy Mo picked off Matt Ryan. Robert Alford got more first team work because Asante is mildly injured, and he pretty much blew me away yesterday. I love his hustle. Julio had a phenomenal reception against Alford, but it was more a testament to Julio's skill than any lapse in Alford's coverage.
One thing that really stood out to me is the vast difference in preparation between the rookies who participated fully in OTAs, and Desmond Trufant and Levine Toilolo, who returned to their respective schools to finish their degrees. Let me be clear--that's a decision I fully support. The NFL is temporary, and I firmly believe that players should ensure that they have career prospects beyond football, and finishing a degree is a cornerstone of that.
That said, it's a huge challenge for young players to adjust to the speed of the game in the NFL, and you see that from Toilolo and Trufant. Trufant clearly exhibited that he has the speed and athletic ability to keep up with elite receivers like Roddy White and Julio Jones, but he's struggling a little with technique and timing. Toilolo looks a little out of sync in second-team reps. It's reasonable to expect that we'll see a big improvement in these two during training camp.
If you were at any of the three open minicamp practices this week, what did I miss? Are you as excited about training camp as I am? Discuss!