If you had the good fortune to be able to visit Falcons training camp yesterday, surely you enjoyed the reprieve from the heat and humidity that is a hallmark of late July and August in Flowery Branch. Yesterday's practice was the second practice in pads for the Falcons and there appeared to be some improvements from day one to day two of padded practices.
I tried to hone in on the receivers yesterday. Over the weekend, Mike Smith said that the coaching staff will have to decide whether or not to carry five or six receivers. With Drew Davis on the training camp PUP list while he recovers from foot surgery and a couple of impressive young players in the receiving corps, and particularly after the unexpected departure of Darius Johnson prior to the start of camp, that last spot or two on the depth chart are pretty much up for grabs at this point.
One thing that can factor into whether or not a receiver looks solid enough to warrant serious consideration from the coaching staff as a viable option for the 53-man roster is the quarterback that's throwing to them. That's why I found it interesting the way the coaching staff is approaching receiving drills. Matt Ryan generally will throw to Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, and Devin Hester. Beyond that, T.J. Yates, Sean Renfree, and Jeff Matthews generally rotate after each throw and aren't throwing to the same receivers consistently. T.J. Yates' accuracy has really impressed me, and there's a difference between being on the receiving end of one of his passes as opposed to Renfree or Matthews. Rotating like that gives the receivers who may be on the bubble the opportunity to catch balls with varying degrees of accuracy, which should allow for the most fair assessment of talent and viability.
I already mentioned it above, but T.J. Yates. Many fans have lamented the lack of an experienced backup for a long time, and Yates' accuracy looks very good in drills. It's slightly less so when the team is in scrimmage situations, but not to an alarming or surprising extent. He certainly has the ability to put the ball right where it needs to be, and he's very confident calling signals and stepping up into the pocket.
Devin Hester has good chemistry with Matt Ryan, and while I acknowledge that he has never impressed as a receiver in his career to date, he has looked solid with Ryan throwing to him. Hester is likely the fourth guy on the depth chart behind Harry Douglas, so it's not like he'll be a primary focus, but I do think he'll contribute offensively.
Roddy White and Julio Jones look amazing. This isn't surprising, but it is encouraging after last season's injury debacles.
Bernard Reedy, an undrafted free agent out of the University of Toledo who made a name for himself in minicamp, is my early favorite to survive roster cuts. Reedy has what Mike Smith described as "elite speed," and has impressive hands. Yesterday Reedy got jammed pretty hard at the line of scrimmage by Josh Wilson, and not only recovered, but got impressive separation and flew downfield. He wasn't the target on that play, but had he been, it would have been a touchdown.
Another undrafted free agent I'm keeping an eye on is Tramaine Thompson. He has impressed me consistently, and yesterday I didn't see him drop a single ball. Disclaimer: it's possible that he dropped a ball and I missed it, because there's a lot going on at camp, but I saw him targeted in drills multiple times and I never saw him drop a ball once.
I think Jeremy Ebert and Jabin Sambrano are also potential options for the final roster, also. Both have looked solid and consistent, and their NFL and practice squad experience may hold appeal for the coaching staff.
Julian Jones showed great awareness when he was thrown a very low ball and went to his knees to complete a difficult catch.
His name keeps coming up, but I love watching Devonta Freeman. His speed, vision and awareness are so good. He has good hands, too, which makes him a great fit for this offense.
Levine Toilolo had a nice catch over the middle on a classic Tony Gonzalez route and a successful effort in a pass blocking situation.
Paul Worrilow has been impressive in terms of defensive leadership, and also is getting pretty good push up front.
The first team defense was really disruptive against the first team offense early in practice. Later in practice the first team offense looked better than the first team defense, so it's not really cause for concern on either side of the ball. It's nice to see them pretty balanced, and I'm eager to see both against an actual opponent since that will be a better gauge.
Robert McClain had two interceptions on the day, and a near-miss on a third. He's certainly making as strong of a case as he can for the starting nickelback role.
Desmond Trufant is really, really good, and Robert Alford's progression over the course of the past season has been impressive. Atlanta did well drafting these two in 2013. This is an impressive young cornerback tandem.
Tyler Starr has struggled at times during camp, but had a really nice pass deflection.
Peter Konz did not look great. While I do think Konz sticks around for another season regardless, I'd pencil Hawley in as the favorite to start.
Matt Ryan's timing seemed a little off again. It wasn't anything crazy, but there were some overthrown balls and some drops from his receivers, too. It was also extremely windy yesterday and Monday. Ryan's timing looked really good to me over the weekend, so I think the wind may be a factor in balls sailing on him, because it doesn't seem logical that his timing would look really bad and then suddenly decline. I'll keep an eye on him on Thursday.
Steven Jackson injured his hamstring in Monday's practice and will be out until week one, according to Mike Smith.
Pat Angerer was injured during practice and the extent of his injury was not yet known when Smith spoke with the media after practice.
Mike Smith spoke to the media after practice and opened with the injury report on Steven Jackson. Smith confirmed that the injury is to Jackson's left hamstring. Last season Jackson had injured the right hamstring. Smith said that Jackson should be ready to go for week one. I will reserve judgment on that.
When asked how he felt practice went yesterday, Smith said that overall he was pleased. "I felt we did some good things. We are making lots of mistakes structurally but we will get those cleaned up," Smith said. Smith also emphasized how much information these players are asked to absorb in such a short amount of time, and in that context he is pleased with the progress.
When asked about quarterback Matt Ryan's leadership, Smith praised Ryan for stepping up as a leader from day one. Smith also said, "[Ryan] believes and I believe that he needs to have a voice in what we are doing offensively."
On tackle Jake Matthews, Smitty said that Matthews is on a fast track to winning a starting role, praising his balance and instincts in pass protection and run blocking. Matthews has been really consistent and impressive throughout camp to date.
On the offensive line as a whole, Smitty said that he didn't want to comment on the specifics of the scheme they'll be adopting under Mike Tice, but did point to a change from last season. Smith said, "We want these guys to be bigger and stronger. We also want them to be athletic because we are going to ask them to do a whole lot of different things. Not only in run blocking but in pass protection as well."
Smith also had high praise for linebacker Paul Worrilow, pointing to the way Worrilow has developed as a leader as well as his understanding of the game. Smitty also said that Sean Weatherspoon is around, and although he is unable to contribute on the field as he recovers from a torn Achilles, he is helping the young linebackers who will be called upon to contribute.
Matt Ryan also spoke to the media after practice. When asked which aspect of the offense is coming together most quickly, Ryan pointed to the difference in physicality up front. Obviously, last season's offensive line was lacking in that area. Ryan said, "I think probably the biggest thing that has been a point of emphasis on both sides of the ball is being physical up front, and Coach Smith has set that tone from the start. From our first meeting, he has been talking about the importance of winning the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball."
When asked about how great it is to have Julio Jones back on the field, Ryan had effusive praise for the talented receiver, pointing to not only Jones' physical abilities, but also his leadership and efforts to help get younger receivers up to speed. Ryan said, "Watching him out there, he looks great and I've been really impressed with how he's come back from the injury."
On tackle Jake Matthews, Ryan had a lot to say, and it was all good. On his performance on the field, Ryan said, "I think Jake is strong, very athletic, and smart. I think that's a great combination. When you talk about a guy who is drafted early and going to be a cornerstone of this organization for a long time to come, it's a great combination to have. He's done it the way a rookie should do it. He has kind of kept his mouth shut, handled his business the right way, and has been pretty quiet." Ryan had some interesting things to say about Matthews off the field as well. "...then we got him up there singing last night in front of everybody and he was pretty good. I was impressed. It was probably the thing that has impressed me the most in the first week is his ability to sing. He's not scared to get up there and a little bit of his personality showed through."
Ryan was asked about Levine Toilolo, and said that he believes he is progressing as a blocker and can be extremely valuable in red zone situations. Ryan also had praise for Devonta Freeman, saying that he still has a lot to learn in terms of pass protection, but that he's intelligent, is picking up the offense rapidly, and that he's really talented. Ryan also praised Freeman's pass-catching ability, saying, "I mean, he catches the ball so well out of the backfield that I could see his role with us in the future being one that he's in there passing situations."
When I said earlier to pencil Joe Hawley in as the starting center, it seems that Ryan feels the same way. On the evolution of the offensive line, Ryan said, "The last two years we've been a pretty efficient screen team, and I think that will continue this year. We've got pretty athletic tackles, really athletic center in Joe that can move pretty well, so I'm certain that our scheme will use their strengths let them get out in space and make some plays."
Discuss Tuesday's training camp in the comments!