The Falcons were blessed with a less-hot and more overcast second day of training camp, while we were blessed with some excellent observations and some positive health news during Friday’s practice and press conferences. Read on for all the important developments from Day 2!
TE Lee Smith returned to the practice field
One of the most underrated additions to the Falcons offense, tight end Lee Smith unfortunately started off training camp on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Thankfully, Smith’s stay on the sideline was brief, as he returned to practice on Friday..
Lee Smith is accounted for. Spent a short time on the COVID-19/reserve list but he’s back working alongside Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst today.— Tori McElhaney (@tori_mcelhaney) July 30, 2021
Smith is by far the best and most accomplished blocking tight end on the roster, so his absence could have been significant. With head coach Arthur Smith running 12 (2TE) sets at one of the highest rates in the NFL, Lee Smith figures to have a prominent role as both a run and pass blocker. We’re glad Smith was able to return to the field so quickly, and hope to see him thrive in Atlanta’s new offensive system.
The returner battle comes into focus
The Falcons made fixing their special teams issues a clear priority under new special teams coordinator Marquice Williams. One of the steps the team took was to bring in high-end returners. All-Pro Cordarrelle Patterson joined the team in free agency, and Atlanta drafted electric college returner Avery Williams in the sixth round. At today’s practice, we got our first glimpse of the players factoring in to the competition.
Falcons working on special teams: Cordarrelle Patterson, Chris Rowland and Avery Williams taking return reps.— Tori McElhaney (@tori_mcelhaney) July 30, 2021
While Cordarrelle Patterson winning the kick return job is basically a foregone conclusion at this point, the punt return battle appears to be coming down to former UDFA Chris Rowland and rookie Avery Williams. Rowland was also a very talented college returner, but he was largely relegated to the practice squad and bench last season. He’ll have a tough competition against Williams to determine who wins the job.
Falcons defensive line begins to take shape
We’ve frequently called attention to the lack of depth on the Falcons’ defensive line, particularly at EDGE. However, the team seems to have some creative plans for addressing those personnel shortcomings with other players on the roster. Yesterday, we saw LB Brandon Copeland run with the edge rushers—and today we saw DL John Cominsky get in on the action.
John Cominsky has been getting a lot of d-line reps with the first team. Steven Means and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, too.— Tori McElhaney (@tori_mcelhaney) July 30, 2021
Cominsky has always been a versatile player, with a bit of a “tweener” build at 6’5, 285, but it appears he will actually be used as an edge defender in Dean Pees’ defense. That’s encouraging, as Cominsky played the position in college and is an elite athlete at both DT and EDGE. He was getting reps both inside and outside during Friday’s practice.
With primary EDGE Dante Fowler out on the reserve/COVID-19 list, we also saw other players get opportunities with the first team. Veteran Steven Means and former UDFA Jacob Tuioti-Mariner also got ample opportunities on the outside, while 2020 second-round pick Marlon Davidson took a lot of reps on the inside. Rookie EDGE Adetokunbo Ogundeji reportedly also impressed in the 1-on-1 drills.
Olamide Zaccheaus and Christian Blake have early edge at WR
The battle for WR3/4/5 is likely to be a hotly-contested one, with a multitude of interesting players and skillsets competing. While the battle is just getting started, it appears two former UDFAs have the early edge at the position: Olamide Zaccheaus and Christian Blake.
Ridley. Gage. Blake. Zaccheaus.— Tori McElhaney (@tori_mcelhaney) July 30, 2021
Your core Falcons WRs ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/JOCN27EoRh
The Athletic’s Tori McElhaney remarked that she was “liking what I am seeing” from Christian Blake in the early going. That’s a bit of a surprise, considering Blake hasn’t really stood out as anything more than a solid reserve option in past seasons. We’ll see if Blake can keep up his early momentum through camp and into the preseason.
Richie Grant, Deion Jones make impressive plays in coverage
While all the praise for the offense has been expected, the defense came to play on Friday. There were a couple of very impressive coverage plays from some prominent Falcons defenders, including this one captured on video by Atlanta’s media team:
The Deion Jones that we all know and love. pic.twitter.com/dZS8em1JoQ— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) July 30, 2021
Sure, it wasn’t the best thrown ball and was put a little behind RB Mike Davis, but Deion Jones had tight coverage the whole way and was able to bring in a very nice interception. Elsewhere in practice, second-round rookie safety Richie Grant had an excellent PBU/forced fumble on UDFA TE Ryan Becker. We’ll hope to see more of these impact plays from a young defense throughout camp and the preseason.
Hayden Hurst has slimmed down to 250, will have prominent role with Kyle Pitts
This one isn’t entirely unexpected, but it’s an interesting tactical decision by the coaching staff and by veteran tight end Hayden Hurst. Hurst was asked to slim down to 250 by new tight ends coach Justin Peelle, and he looks great on the field this year. When asked about his role, Hurst made it clear that: “it’s not Hurst vs Pitts, it’s Hurst AND Pitts”.
#Falcons going to be running a lot of 12 (2TE) packages. With Hurst dropping to 250, he's likely to be the more receiving-focused option across from Pitts while Lee Smith handles the blocking. https://t.co/szyeAOWQ10— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) July 30, 2021
The Falcons are going to be a very heavy 12 (2TE) personnel team, and it seems clear that the coaching staff is asking Hurst to emphasize his athleticism and receiving talents in the new offense. With Lee Smith joining the team as a pure—and much more proven—blocker, Hurst’s blocking abilities aren’t as necessary. Hopefully the reduced weight will help Hurst maximize his athleticism and separation ability.
Thanks for tuning in to Day 2 of our training camp coverage! We’ll have several staff members, including myself, up at Flowery Branch for Saturday’s practice.