The Falcons are back to practice today, and Kevin Knight will be providing us updates from Flowery Branch. While we wait for things to kick off in earnest there, let’s talk about who has been impressing observers in the early going.
As always, there’s a few things you should keep in mind before we start lauding these players:
- These have been pad-less practices without contact, so some players are going to stand out now owing to their speed or talent who may well struggle a bit in padded practices and live games. You should not lose hope if (or more likely when) that happens, as players worth their salt will show progress as August grinds on and they have to face more contact and an entirely different team.
- Standing out now is good for these guys—great, even, given that every positive impression on the coaching staff is a plus—but nobody’s getting a job based on what they do in the first few days of training camp. They might lose one if they’re the 90th man on the roster and Arthur Smith suddenly gets a hankerin’ for another tight end, but nonetheless.
- This year, I am willing to entertain the idea that all of this will matter a little more, because a new coaching staff championing earning your spot on the roster is going to have fewer attachments and baked-in preferences for reserves than Dan Quinn and company did after five years. We shouldn’t get carried away, but if you want to put a little more weight in some of these and live dangerously, go for it.
Without further ado, standouts courtesy of Adnan, Kevin and the gang.
RBs Javian Hawkins/Qadree Ollison
Mike Davis is perched atop the depth chart at running back, and Cordarelle Patterson is locked into a roster spot as the team’s kick returner, a reserve running back and likely a part-time wide receiver. The depth chart beyond those two is wide open, but there are two obvious candidates for what figures to be two roster spots.
The first is undrafted free agent and early fan favorite Javian Hawkins. The Louisville product is the fastest back in camp and has been showing that speed off, taking it to the house multiple times in the early days of practices. Hawkins has game-changing speed in a backfield that mostly features well-rounded bruisers, which should help him get a roster spot. I’m fully expecting him to start the year on the 53 man roster.
Ollison has been making his mark, as well, making a couple of contested catches and showing off his powerful running style, a style that should serve him well as he auditions for a role in preseason. One of the most baffling things about the Dirk Koetter 2.0 era in Atlanta was the team drafting Ollison and then essentially mothballing him despite the shaky running game the Falcons boasted over the past two years, but he may find his way into a larger role under Arthur Smith as Davis’s understudy, especially if he’s showing good hands in the weeks ahead.
WRs Olamide Zaccheaus/Austin Trammell
If we were to call the competition right now, I think we’d see Zaccheaus as the team’s slot receiver in 2021. That role may not be as prominent this year as it has been in years past—we’ll see more two tight end sets and Russell Gage may steal some slot snaps while a Frank Darby or Tajae Sharpe kicks outside—but his lethal speed makes him an intriguing player there. He’s making his case in the early going, and he’s one of the most experienced candidates for the job.
Trammell is another player both Kevin and Adnan have noticed in camp thus far, as he’s showing off his wheels. Given that he’s been out there as a returner and has some upside as a receiver in a year where few players are guaranteed spots, it’ll be worth watching to see if he can keep it up as the sledding gets tougher.
Honestly, you could throw Chris Rowland in here as well for a couple of impressive catches, and he’s very much in the mix for the punt returner gig with Trammell and Avery Williams. The final wide receiver spot and punt returner roles will be decided heavily by preseason game action, in all likelihood, so stay tuned for that.
TE Kyle Pitts
Were we expecting Pitts to be a standout in training camp this year? Yes, I’m sure every fan expects their first rounder, especially one who was selected in the Top 5, to perform well. It’s still incredibly exciting and a bit of a relief when that first rounder does perform up to expectations, however.
Expectations for Pitts are sky high, and he exhibited why that is this weekend. On Saturday especially he showcased how dangerous he was with the ball in his hands when he juked Duron Harmon out of his shoes on an 11-on-11 play, and he displayed his catch radius when he almost hauled in a ridiculously overthrown pass which was completely behind him. His movement is so fluid for someone so big, and it was even more impressive to see in person.
TE Hayden Hurst
Hurst feels like a forgotten man on this offense after the team selected Pitts as the highest drafted TE of all time, but I wouldn’t be so quick to overlook Hayden as a contributor. We all know that he’ll be on the field plenty thanks to the 2-TE sets that Arthur Smith loves to employ.
Hurst showed up to camp about 15 pounds lighter on the recommendation of coaches, weighing in at a brisk 250. He looked absolutely jacked, and it wasn’t just for show. Hurst got plenty of run with the first team offense and he did a great job of picking up yardage after the catch. If he can take a step forward, Atlanta’s offensive unit will be all the more dangerous.
OL Matt Hennessy
It’s hard to say anyone’s running away with competitions along the offensive line except Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom, who are obviously entrenched as starters. Hennessy is certainly making his case in the early going, looking comfortable and moving well while serving as the clear-cut first team center in the early going. Given that his primary competitor in Drew Dalman appears to be getting some work at guard, I’m going to continue to pencil in Hennessy as the starter. A year of being Alex Mack’s understudy and taking his lumps against the Chiefs in particular probably helped him get here.
Again, offensive and defensive linemen in particular will be worth watching more closely once the pads go on and contact is allowed, but Hennessy is the obvious favorite for the job right now.
CB Darren Hall
If you break up a few passes intended for Kyle Pitts, that’s probably going to draw notice, given that many eyes at camp are going to be on Kyle Pitts.
As Kevin noted, those were the biggest plays for Hall, but they underscore the kind of aggression and fearlessness he plays with, which were two things that the Falcons were evidently drawn to. If you’re going to challenge Pitts in practice you won’t have any trouble challenging smaller, less physical players in game situations, which is the kind of receiver Hall figures to match up against regularly if he pulls off a coup and winds up playing a lot in the slot this year. Even if he’s just a reserve, the team’s hopes for him are obviously high and Hall is showing early on that he’s ready to compete.
CB Chris Williamson
A lot of cornerbacks on this list, which hopefully bodes well for the season ahead. Williamson was a Giants seventh round pick in 2020 and spent most of the season on the team’s practice squad, getting cut in December and signed to a reserve/future contract by the Falcons in January 2021. He’s come on strong in training camp thus far, drawing the attention of the coaching staff.
As Arthur Smith said, per Scott Bair at AtlantaFalcons.com:
“Chris keeps showing up,” Smith said, “and did again today.”
There won’t be a lot of open spots at cornerback, not with A.J. Terrell locked in, rookies Hall and Avery Williams very likely to stick and Isaiah Oliver, Fabian Moreau and Kendall Sheffield all pushing for spots, but if Williamson continues to impress he’ll at least have an inside track to a practice squad spot.
CB A.J. Terrell
A.J. Terrell had a pretty good rookie season and he looks poised for an absolute breakout sophomore campaign. I (Adnan) came away impressed with his technique, defensive instincts and ball hawking ability this weekend. On Saturday, he had textbook coverage against Russell Gage one on one in an 11-on-11 drill where he cut down the field for the receiver, used the sideline as a help defender and then came in to bat away the pass at the last moment.
On Sunday, Terrell once again utilized the sideline to help him break up another pass before aggressively undercutting and attacking the ball on an interception which would have gone for a score in an actual game. I’m excited about Terrell’s prospects of becoming a shutdown corner.
Head Coach Arthur Smith
This is Smith’s first rodeo as a head coach and I (Adnan) was encouraged with the vibe I (still Adnan) got from the first ever Training Camp he ran. The players seemed energetic and inspired, there were far more 11-on-11 drills than what I saw when Dan Quinn was in charge and Smith (along with Terry Fontenot) even took some time to address the fans who showed up on Saturday morning in what was a very classy and endearing gesture.
There also seemed to be a much greater emphasis on discipline than there was under the previous regime. Multiple times, players were sent to run a lap after committing penalties, and the entire offensive unit was even sent for a lap in the early part of Saturday’s practice following a pre-snap mistake they made. Every player was lined up to run sprints at the end of practice on Sunday, as conditioning is also being emphasized.
If you were in Flowery Branch over the weekend, let us know who else made your list!