Thursday was the third and final day of minicamp for the Atlanta Falcons, and let's not even talk about how long it is until training camp, okay? Thursday's practice was closed to the public, and I was curious as to whether the format would be distinctly different from the open practices. It wasn't at all, really. The structure was very similar.
One thing I noticed, and was pleased about, was that there seemed to be fewer mistakes across the board. The team, with so many new personnel in play, seems to be settling n, and some guys definitely stood out in a positive way. Rashede Hageman had a good day, bringing a lot of pressure up front and knocking down a pass. Robert McClain played really well outside in place of Desmond Trufant, who was held out again as a precaution. McClain even had an interception. Harry Douglas had a couple of really nice catches. Bernard Reedy sure runs pretty routes, and runs them fast, and Darius Johnson had a beautiful fingertip catch in the end zone toward the end of practice. Patrick DiMarco has looked solid throughout minicamp.
Take this with a grain of salt, because obviously nothing is running at full speed at this point and Roddy White and Julio Jones are still out, but the first team defense looked better to me than the offense in scrimmages today. With such a significant need to improve on defense, I don't think this is a bad thing at all.
Head coach Mike Smith addressed the media after practice, and the trade that sent linebacker Akeem Dent to Houston and brings quarterback T.J. Yates to Atlanta was a hot topic. On that topic Smitty said that the Falcons are always calibrating their roster and always trying to put the most competitive roster in place. T.J. Yates' experience as a quarterback in the NFL, including big game experience, was appealing to the team. Smitty said that it is awkward for a transaction like that to happen at this time of the year, but Yates will get to learn the system in training camp.
On the Tim Dobbins acquisition, Smitty said that the competition for playing time at the inside linebacker position should create an interesting dynamic in training camp. They'll have two guys who started last year in Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, who are my early picks to start, not that this is a bold prediction or anything. Then they have Prince Shembo, who Smith said is picking up the system well so far. Obviously he's lacking NFL experience, but Smith said that the team will get him plenty of experience in the preseason. Add Dobbins, a veteran with game experience, into the mix, and the inside linebacker competition in training camp is certainly one to watch. Dobbins will also, according to Smith, be expected to pick up Dent's slack on special teams.
When asked what impressed Smith the most about minicamp, Smitty's immediate answer was the rookie class. He praised Jake Matthews' performance on the field and in the classroom. Smith said that Hageman and Southward did a nice job in camp, and that he's eager to see the battle between the young linebackers to see who's going to step up this season. He said for a second time that Shembo had a good minicamp. That seems like a ringing endorsement.
Technically the team has time off between the end of practice yesterday and the start of training camp, but Smith said that it's not really time off even though the team is not permitted to contact the players during this interval. Smith asked for a show of hands to represent who planned to use the weight room between now and training camp in Thursday's morning meeting and he was pleased with the response from the players.
On Devonta Freeman, Smith said that he's got great quickness and good strength, calling Freeman one of the stronger players, pound for pound, on the roster. Smith said Freeman has great vision, and the most striking thing Smith said about Freeman is that he's picking up pass protection. That's a challenging thing for rookie running backs, and picking it up effectively now could be the difference in whether or not Freeman sees the field much next season.
When asked about a running back rotation, Smith said that their running backs all have different skill sets, and they want to be sure they spread out touches this season. He said it will be fun to put together game plans to use all of the running backs on the roster.
Perhaps the most important thing Smith said was on the competition for spots on the 53-man roster. Smith said the players have been told, "It doesn't matter where you were drafted, it doesn't matter what you did last year, it doesn't matter how many zeroes are on your paycheck--the best 53 guys are going to be the guys that play." Smith said that, in his words, "A handful or a hand and a half," of players have roster spots locked up at this point. He went on to say, in light of the T.J. Yates acquisition, that Matt Ryan is definitely one of the players who has locked up the starting spot. But beyond those most obvious players--and I'd love to see your guesses at who they are in the comments--the competition should be fierce.
Smith was asked about the team's offseason goals, and Smith said that they don't have goals, they have expectations, and those expectations are higher than the fans' expectations, or the media's expectations, or the expectations of anyone outside of their building, and that if the team plays up to their potential they should meet those expectations.
Matt Ryan also spoke to the media after practice, and he was asked about T.J. Yates. He called Yates a really nice guy and said that he was looking forward to working with him.
Ryan had some really interesting comments on the offensive line. When asked about their chemistry he did say that they're doing some things differently. Ryan said that a big part of Mike Tice's approach is communication at the line of scrimmage, so that's something to watch for in training camp as they continue to adapt to that.
Ryan talked about the importance of maintaining a training regimen and staying in shape during these four weeks off. He said that it is nice to get some time off and come back mentally fresh, but that the guys have to be accountable to one another and make sure they're ready to go when camp begins. Ryan also said that while he is looking forward to time off, he's also looking forward to getting back to Flowery Branch and getting in pads.
A few rookies also spoke to the media. Devonta Freeman talked about how new everything is. It's a big transition for all of the rookies. "It's good," Freeman said, "but it's a learning process." Freeman also said the team made him sing a song earlier Thursday but he wasn't very good and his teammates booed him off stage. When asked to sing the song for the media Freeman declined.
Rashede Hageman said that what he does in this time off when the coaches aren't looking is as important as what he does on the field. Hageman also said that he has enjoyed the benefit of veteran support from players like Jonathan Babineaux, Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, as well as the guidance of defensive line coach Bryan Cox. When asked if he was used to the 95 degree heat, Hageman said, "No. No, man. No, man." Me either, buddy. Hageman also pointed out that what he does off the field really matters, because there were never questions about his physical ability. Hageman sees learning the playbook and being fully prepared as key to his success.
Based on what we learned in minicamp, what are you most looking forward to seeing in training camp? Which players do you think are the few players, according to Mike Smith, who have roster spots locked up at this point? Discuss!