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6 things we learned from Day 3 of Falcons training camp

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The first day of padded practices brought with it some fun full-contact drills. We also got a glimpse at J.J. Wilcox’s potential replacement, and who Matt Ryan’s favorite target has been with Julio Jones sitting out team drills.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons-Training Camp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We’re well underway with the first week of the Atlanta Falcons 2019 Training Camp, with three full practices in the books. Day 3 of Falcons’ training camp brought the sunshine back to Flowery Branch, and significantly more fans showed up to enjoy the festivities today. It was a fun, lively atmosphere that thankfully wasn’t oppressively hot.

The Falcons were kind enough to practice mostly on the close field today, so I was able to more closely view the individual and team drills. Check out my biggest takeaways below.

The first (semi) padded practice is in the books

As Quinn hinted at yesterday, the Falcons did indeed start Day 3’s practice in full pads. The team participated in full-contact drills, including in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work. There was no tackling to the ground, but it was still nice to finally get to see the team do something that is starting to resemble real football. Atlanta practiced in full pads early on, then removed them for the second half of practice. Quinn said he was trying to ease the players back in to full contact to help prevent injury.

We got to see a lot of 1-on-1 reps with rookies Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary against the Falcons’ defensive line. Lindstrom generally looked fine for a rookie in his first training camp, going up against the likes of Jack Crawford (who showed a strong bull rush) and fellow rookie John Cominsky.

Kaleb McGary had a good rep against John Cominsky—who has been showing off his impressive athleticism—as well. It’ll be worth monitoring this line group closely, as free agent addition Jamon Brown has looked strong during the last two days of training camp and has begun to earn a larger share of the starting reps at LG. Brown is younger and has more guarantees in his contract, so the team has some incentive to give the job to him if it’s close.

WR Russell Gage has been Matt Ryan’s favorite target

With Julio Jones sitting out the team drills, several additional WRs have been getting reps with the starters. Mohamed Sanu had the most impressive day of the bunch, making two ridiculous grabs in tight coverage and scoring a TD on a wildcat run. But the most frequently targeted player over the course of Day 2 and Day 3 has been Russell Gage, who seems to have earned Ryan’s trust over the course of the offseason.

Gage has been everywhere, taking snaps in the slot and the outside and showing off his athleticism and smooth route running. It seems pretty clear that the Falcons would like to see Gage as the WR4 in 2019, and he’s acquitted himself well with the increase in opportunity.

The punt/kick return competition is taking shape

As of Wednesday, the returner competition seemed to have been whittled down to three serious contenders: rookie WR Marcus Green, veteran RB Kenjon Barner, and UDFA WR Olamide Zaccheaus. All three got extensive work returning punts and kickoffs on Day 3, and even Dan Quinn stopped by for some hands-on coaching.

There were some particularly fun drills involving a mock “tackler”, and even some full-contact return reps. Here are a couple of the notable ones, but right now the competition between Green and Barner seems pretty close.

TEs Eric Saubert and Alex Gray had a strong performance

After an impressive showing by the WRs on Tuesday, the TEs had a very strong day on Wednesday. Eric Saubert—who could be in a fight for his roster spot this season—displayed improved route running and downfield speed on several plays during 11-on-11s. He appears to have strong chemistry with both Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub, and that coupled with the improved blocking he showed in 2018 could make him a much more frequent contributor in 2019.

Meanwhile, TE Alex Gray had two circus catches with the third-team unit. He and QB Kurt Benkert have clearly developed some chemistry, with Benkert completing a fantastic deep pass under pressure to Gray in tight coverage. Gray has an uphill battle to make the roster and/or practice squad considering his age and the quality of the TEs in front of him, but he’s been impressive early on in camp. We’ll see if he can continue to build on this momentum during the preseason.

Kemal Ishmael is getting more reps at safety

After the unfortunate news that J.J. Wilcox—who was the early favorite to be Atlanta’s third safety—tore his ACL during the first day of practice, there has been a lot of speculation about who would step up in his absence. Sharrod Neasman has been getting reps at free safety with the second-team defense and has looked solid. Today, we got a glimpse at a potential backup for strong safety, and it’s a familiar name: LB/S Kemal Ishmael.

Ishmael played his entire college career and his early years in Atlanta at safety, and it looks like he might be headed back into that role after Wilcox’s injury. The Falcons’ re-signed Ishmael this offseason, but he was going to be facing a fierce competition for one of the roster spots at LB. Ishmael has a much easier path to the roster at safety, where he’s competing with Neasman, Chris Cooper, Ryan Neal, and a few UDFAs.

LB Bruce Carter is getting first team looks

With Deion Jones sitting out the full-contact team drills, we got to see a few additional players at LB over the course of practice. The usual suspects—De’Vondre Campbell and Foyesade Oluokun—got the bulk of the work, but we also saw another player get significant reps with the starters: veteran LB Bruce Carter.

Carter got several opportunities with the first string and acquitted himself well: he had an interception in coverage and generally looked comfortable in the middle of the defense. Carter proved himself in 2018 as an experienced reserve who is capable of playing all three LB positions, which has made him an early favorite to be the fourth LB on the 53-man roster. There’s a ton of competition this year, including third-year LB Duke Riley, athletic free agent signing Jermaine Grace, and impressive UDFA Tre’ Crawford. If Carter keeps playing like this, it would seem his roster spot is fairly safe.

What were your takeaways from the third day of Falcons’ training camp? Any players that you’ve been monitoring closely this week?