Padded practices kick off today for the Atlanta Falcons, and that means we’re one step closer to seeing a fully formed team.
What have we learned from the early days of training camp? Only a few things, given how much lies ahead for this team in training camp and preseason, and the looming cuts that will slice the roster nearly in half. Still, there have been trends worth watching and a ton of highlights that have us looking forward to the season ahead, even if we have no idea how well it’s actually going to go.
Hat tip to Kevin Knight for all the observations over the past week, as he’s been doing yeoman’s work in the heat at Flowery Branch. We’ll be drawing heavily from his camp reports (which you can read here, here, here, and of course here) for this writeup.
Marcus Mariota is the clear frontrunner at QB
Mariota was the expected winner all along, given his ties to the coaching staff and significant starting experience. Quarterbacks coach Charles London all but confirmed it this past week.
Arthur Smith says @JoshTheAthletic got QBs coach Charles London with a "vet move" yesterday when he got London to name Mariota the starter.— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) July 28, 2022
This is logical for any number of reasons, as Kevin and other camp observers have noted that Mariota has been a bit sharper as a passer, and having a veteran under center during a seven-week gauntlet to start the season is probably wise. My expectation is that Ridder will make starts in 2022—if he doesn’t it would mean the Falcons are playing tremendous football, which would be welcome—but Arthur Smith’s appreciation for the veteran has long been clear and he has a clear leg up on the competition in the early going. Put this one down in pen, and we’ll see if Mariota can achieve bigger and better things in Atlanta than he did in Tennessee and Las Vegas.
The left guard competition is heating up
I have been working under the assumption that Jalen Mayfield will be the starting left guard since the offseason began, and nothing I had seen before training camp had dissuaded me from thinking so. The only moves the Falcons had made to shore up left guard were Elijah Wilkinson (who wasn’t confirmed to be in the mix at the position until fairly recently) and drafting Justin Shaffer. Given that Colby Gossett didn’t beat out Mayfield a year ago and Shaffer figures to need some time before he’s pushing hard for a starting job, Wilkinson was the only compelling competition, and he had never played left guard in the pros before now.
Now, though? Wilkinson has run as the starter at left guard in three out of four days thus far, signalling that the team is going to give him a serious shot at unseating Mayfield. My strong belief is still that the Falcons want their young draft pick to win the job, but they’ve found a player they like enough to challenge him, which will hopefully draw the best out of him. Whether or not Wilkinson wins, he seems ticketed for a roster spot, as he’s now practiced or played at most positions on the line and has plenty of starting experience.
Young safeties in the driver’s seat(s)
As Kevin wrote, Richie Grant has been one of the more impressive players in camp thus far. He and Jaylinn Hawkins have both looked good, and true to Dean Pees’ comments on 92.9 earlier this year to Mike Bell and Carl Dukes, they’re getting an opportunity and rolling out as starters in the early going.
That’s only so significant this early in camp, perhaps, but I do believe the Falcons want them both to win jobs and that they’re plenty capable of doing so. Atlanta appears to be intent on adding depth to the position group—the Henry Black signing was proof enough of that—but the early returns are positive for players who could be an effective starting duo for years to come.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though, and we’ll see how Grant and Hawkins look when the pads go on today.
Competition has been as fierce as expected
As Will McFadden wrote, training camp practices have been competitive and high-energy. There have even been fights, which is a good sign that players aren’t taking any of this lightly.
That matters because camp is supposed to be competitive, and there are a huge number of starting jobs and roster spots up for grabs for a re-tooling Falcons team. It also matters because Arthur Smith, Dean Pees, Terry Fontenot, and basically anyone else in this front office and coaching staff who have a chance to talk to the media have focused so much on this team’s culture and drive and the need to make major changes to put this squad on the path to greatness. Competitive practices in late July may not be a harbinger of a competitive team in the fall, but it definitely can’t hurt.
There are plenty of other items worth at least a quick mention—Geronimo Allison running with the starters at receiver, Feleipe Franks turning some heads as a tight end, the running backs being heavily involved in the passing game—that Kevin has written up over the past week. I suggest catching up on his coverage if you missed anything, and we’ll soon see whether the first few days were full of flukes or signs of what’s to come for the Falcons as they edge ever closer to the 2022 season.