It was a hot and humid opening day at Atlanta Falcons training camp, and I saw my fair share of fireworks from both sides of the ball. The offense looked sharp right out of the gate—which is not always a given, particularly with new QBs at the helm—and there were a number of impressive plays from the receivers. We also saw some impact plays and turnovers created by the defense.
There’s a lot to get to, so let’s get started.
Falcons will have open competition at LG, C, and RT
One of the hottest topics this offseason has been the state of the offensive line, and the chances that the Falcons could return all five starters from a very poor overall unit. Obviously, Jake Matthews at left tackle and Chris Lindstrom at right guard are the two stalwarts—and are above-average or better even on their worst days. The other three spots leave a lot to be desired.
So, naturally, I was watching the offensive line groupings like a hawk. On the first day of training camp, there was a clear first-team and second-team offensive line.
I sent this out earlier, but this is the early #Falcons OL depth chart:— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) July 27, 2022
LT: Jake Matthews/Rick Leonard
LG: Jalen Mayfield/Elijah Wilkinson
C: Drew Dalman/Matt Hennessy
RG: Chris Lindstrom/Colby Gossett
RT: Kaleb McGary/Germain Ifedi
This will change day-to-day, per Arthur Smith
That means, in terms of the first-team starters, the only change from 2021 comes at center. Drew Dalman, 2021’s fourth-round selection, was the first man up at the pivot. Otherwise, there were no changes at left guard (Jalen Mayfield) or right tackle (Kaleb McGary).
However, Arthur Smith did make it clear at his post-practice presser that the three spots not manned by Matthews and Lindstrom are totally up-for-grabs in camp. There will be an open competition, and players will get rotated into the starting lineup in a “fair” manner.
Arthur Smith says they will make it fair. Drew Dalman was the starting center today, but they'll make sure Matt Hennessy gets his share of reps too. Same at other positions. #Falcons— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) July 27, 2022
So, if you’re hoping to see some other incumbent starters unseated, we should get a chance to at least see the other players Atlanta brought in to challenge them. I’d advise keeping a close eye on Germain Ifedi at right tackle and Elijah Wilkinson at left guard. I had assumed Wilkinson would factor in to the tackle battle more, but he played exclusively at guard as far as I could tell. That’s definitely something to monitor, as Wilkinson has performed like a solid starter at times during his career.
Marcus Mariota and the offense shine
While the offense tends to struggle more often at the start of camp, that was not the case today. Atlanta’s offense, particularly when helmed by Marcus Mariota, was sharp and looked pretty darn good. Mariota connected with WRs KhaDarel Hodge and Olamide Zaccheaus for significant gains downfield, while an underthrown ball was hauled in thanks to a heads-up play by Bryan Edwards.
The most impressive play of the day, however, came at the hands of veteran receiver Auden Tate.
Terrific leaping grab from WR Auden Tate, showing off that impressive catch radius. CB A.J. Terrell had good coverage, but Mariota put the ball where only Tate could get it. #Falcons pic.twitter.com/UzZCS5dvy4— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) July 27, 2022
Tate ran a crossing route and got a little help from a creative rub route to get a step of separation on cornerback A.J. Terrell. With Terrell closing fast, Mariota put the ball out where only Tate could haul it in—and he made a terrific catch on the way to the sideline. In terms of his overall play, I’d say Tate was the most impressive receiver on the first day of practice, with Olamide Zaccheaus right behind him.
There was also this excellent play—which we’ll hope is a staple of the offense all season—as Mariota hit an open Kyle Pitts downfield for a massive gain.
Marcus Mariota to Kyle Pitts. Easy money. Really not fair to Lorenzo Carter (who is maybe the best coverage EDGE in the NFL) on this play, but this offense should create mismatches like that. #Falcons pic.twitter.com/hYdSWVhCPL— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) July 27, 2022
Pitts was aligned in coverage against Lorenzo Carter, which is an obvious mismatch despite Carter being maybe the best coverage EDGE in the NFL, but Pitts was still too quick for even safety Jaylinn Hawkins to prevent the play over the top.
Speaking of Pitts, he had a strong day overall. He caught everything thrown his way and made it look effortless. Pitts looks primed to follow-up his record-setting rookie season with an even better Year 2.
With Feleipe Franks playing at tight end all day, the quarterback reps were split pretty evenly between Mariota and rookie Desmond Ridder. While Ridder wasn’t as sharp as Mariota, he looked prepared and didn’t make any egregious mistakes on the first day of camp. Ridder showed some early chemistry with fellow rookie Drake London and TE2 Anthony Firkser.
London hauled in a few good catches and got plenty of work with the starters, but otherwise had a fairly quiet day. It’s just the first day of practice and I didn’t think he looked poor by any measure. Keep an eye on London, as his role is likely to continue to grow over the course of training camp.
Since I know you want my take on the QB battle, I’d say that Mariota has the clear lead early in camp, but Ridder has been “as advertised” thus far. He’s looked in command of the huddle, and the team was having him run more-or-less the same exact plays as Mariota. I’ll watch his progress closely over the next week, but after one day, I’m coming away a lot more impressed with the quarterback duo than expected.
Defense looks tough against the run, creates a few turnovers
Even though the offense was the more impressive unit on Wednesday, the defense made their fair share of plays.
It’s tough to evaluate line play or run defense without full contact, but I thought the defense kept the running game largely intact on the first day of practice. They seemed more vulnerable in the passing game and to dump-offs, as Damien Williams and even FB Keith Smith had some impressive gains on check-downs.
Even when there were struggles, the defense was hunting for turnovers. Here’s a great example, as Mariota is able to complete a pass to TE Anthony Firkser—only to have safety Erik Harris fly in and force the fumble, which is recovered by fellow safety Dean Marlowe.
There was also this near-INT from cornerback Darren Hall, who got his hands on the ball but couldn’t quite reel it in. Unfortunately for the defense—and fortunately for the offense—WR Olamide Zaccheaus was able to secure the ball off the deflection and take it for a significant gain. But that play could have easily gone the other way.
Rookie Desmond Ridder puts this pass just a little too far outside, giving CB Darren Hall a chance at the INT. But WR Olamide Zaccheaus comes up with the ball off the deflection! Great heads-up play. #Falcons pic.twitter.com/vws1m7h4hu— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) July 27, 2022
Safety battle features two new starters, Isaiah Oliver returns
For the Richie Grant and/or Jaylinn Hawkins fans, I’ve got good news for you. The young safety duo were the starters right out of the gate in 11-on-11, while veterans Erik Harris and Dean Marlowe started with the second-team and rotated in. Much like the offensive line, I expect there to be a “fair” competition here. But it’s a very good sign that both Grant and Hawkins are the starters right out of the gate.
I didn’t get a great look at any Grant reps, but Hawkins was involved in a number of plays. Grant typically seemed to play closer to the line of scrimmage, while Hawkins more frequently played in a deep alignment. Hawkins showed some strong run support and was in the right position to potentially break up passes in a full contact situation. Like the play below, where he would’ve had a chance to put a big hit on Anthony Firkser.
Desmond Ridder to TE Anthony Firkser for a nice gain. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins was right there to lay the wood after the catch, but wisely pulled up (no tackling today). #Falcons pic.twitter.com/ZmQFxAtZfH— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) July 27, 2022
Obviously, you never want to lay out your teammates, but Hawkins was in position to do so. He also had several plays where he was in position to make a play for little-to-gain on screens and in run support.
For those looking for an update on Isaiah Oliver, I’m happy to report that he returned to more-or-less a full workload on the first day of camp after being limited throughout the offseason program. It looks like he started practice without it, but late in the day, he did have a knee brace on. Still, it was great to see him back on the field. This wasn’t necessarily full contact or speed, so it’s hard to say if he was playing with any hesitation. I didn’t notice anything obvious.
Other notes from the first day of Falcons training camp
- CB Cornell Armstrong was seemingly rewarded for his strong OTA/minicamp performance by working extensively with the 1st/2nd team group
- Former UDFA LB Dorian Etheridge got a chance to mix in with the starters in the “full team” session at the end of practice, and he was impressive. Had multiple TFLs, including one on a designed Desmond Ridder scramble.
- QB/TE Feleipe Franks officially will remain listed as a quarterback and will continue to get some QB reps throughout camp. However, it seems like he’ll take most of his reps at TE and function as the emergency backup.
- TE Anthony Firkser looked like the clear-cut TE2, and Parker Hesse seems to have the early edge at TE3. We’ll see if rookie John FitzPatrick can work his way into the mix.
- It’s tough to evaluate the run game without full contact, but I can tell you the RBs who were working with the “starters” versus the “depth”. Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier, Damien Williams, and Qadree Ollison were with the 1st/2nd team. Avery Williams and Caleb Huntley worked primarily with the 3rd/4th team.
That’s all for today’s training camp notes. I’ll be back at Flowery Branch bright and early on Thursday. Be sure to tune in to The Falcoholic Live tonight at 8 PM ET if you’ve got any questions to ask!