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Falcons training camp: Here’s what we’ve learned from the first few days

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Of unexpected receiver battles, Chris Lindstrom’s dominance, and more.

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

We hope you all used the day off from training camp to relax, hydrate, tend to your gardens, and otherwise take some time to yourself. We’re back at it today, and the Hall of Fame game featuring your Falcons is less than a week away.

With that in mind, I thought we’d take this morning before camp kicks back up to reflect on what we’ve learned to this point. Conclusions have been drawn from my own review of everything we’ve seen, but mostly from the excellent reporting of Jeanna Thomas and Kevin Knight here.

Chris Lindstrom domination

Lindstrom is the starting right guard. He’s worked there exclusively thus far in camp and there is no competition looming, as far as we can see. This is one of those cases where early camp performance makes something obvious and no hedging is necessary.

Lindstrom was a stunning pick at #14 because until the day of the draft, we hadn’t heard that A) he’d go that high or that B) the Falcons would be the team he’d go to. They had just added two guards in free agency, after all. But hearing the team gush about Lindstrom after the pick—and the fact that they made it—made it pretty evident he’d have to faceplant to lose his job. In the early days of camp, he’s looked as good as advertised per basically every observer we’ve talked to and heard from, and there’s no credible challenger for his role with Carpenter and Brown competing at left guard and Wes Schweitzer an afterthought now.

Lindstrom’s got that job. Let’s hope he crushes it.

Kemal Ishmael will be back at safety

The news that J.J. Wilcox tore his ACL was mighty depressing. The team had made it clear as training camp began that they considered him the frontrunner for the third safety gig, and losing him left a more significant hole than we might have suspected heading into the summer.

It’s not a lock that Kemal Ishmael will be the third safety—it’s possible he’ll just be a deep reserve there and at linbacker—but his return to his native position suggests he’ll have a role to play there. Ishmael was a bright spot on some very bad Mike Smith defenses as a big-time hitter and playmaker, and the physicality at least aligns with what the Falcons were hoping to get out of Wilcox.

The biggest beneficiary figures to be Bruce Carter, who got some first-team reps at linebacker and could fend off Jermaine Grace and Tre’ Crawford for a roster spot with Ishmael splitting his time. Of course, the Falcons just signed former Saints first rounder Stephone Anthony on Friday, so maybe not.

Russell Gage’s growing role

When I wrote about Russell Gage being a player worth watching and potentially taking over the fourth receiver role if Justin Hardy didn’t return, I did so because I was intrigued by his potential and limited tape from 2018. What I didn’t know is whether the Falcons would actually weigh giving him a larger role this year or not.

The answer, at least early in camp, appears to be a resounding yes. The Falcons have dabbled with Gage at QB in the Wildcat, have given him a ton of targets early on, and have had him roll out a bit with the starters. Given his obvious special teams value, Gage will be active on a weekly basis, and a strong summer could legitimately earn him a small but valuable role in this offense.

The question is whether he can shove his way by Hardy, and that’s an open question. The reality is that Hardy’s superb blocking skills are a very big deal in an offense that wants to run better, which means he’s going to have a role whether he’s the de facto fourth or fifth receiver. Gage’s blocking would likely have to take a quantum leap to approximate Hardy there, but his versatility and skill could lead to him having a much bigger role in 2020, when Hardy and Mohamed Sanu may both be gone.

If nothing else, Dan Quinn’s gonna love this:

The returner gigs are down to three competitors

Nothing’s set in stone just yet, but per Kevin, Kenjon Barner, Marcus Green, and Olamide Zaccheaus are the three competitors working for a return gig as of now. That’s been pretty consistent over the first few days of camp, with rookie Shawn Bane still deserving mention because he mixed in earlier.

To be clear, this is a critical job for these players. Barner and Zaccheaus are not particularly likely to make this roster if they don’t win one or both of the returner gigs, while Green has a slight leg up because of his versatility and the fact that he was just drafted. We’re not any closer to knowing who will win it just yet—Green is still my hunch—but at least we have a better sense of the field.