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Who will be Atlanta’s training camp stars in 2023?

Every summer, somebody breaks out.

NFL: AUG 06 Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jared Bernhardt. Olamide Zaccheaus. Geraldo Boldewjin. Bernard Reedy. You hear the names, and depending on how long you’ve been a close observer of Falcons training camp, you’ll instantly recognize them as players who turned heads in summers of yesteryear. Often they’re wide receivers who come into camp with low expectations and dazzle in practices and games, and (very) occasionally they even land a major role with the team into the fall. If nothing else, they dazzle us briefly and make the summer more fun that it would have been otherwise.

In seasons past, as the roster thinned out and the team had to dig deeper to find contributors, players like Timothy Horne and Dorian Etheridge were able to turn strong summers into roster stints, with Horne proving to be a critical piece of the defensive line rotation late in the year in 2022. This year, with so many additions to the roster and so much money spent, the chances that an undrafted free agent will make the final 53 seems slim. They’ll really have to excel, but then, stranger things have happened.

Regardless, a handful of players will likely capture our imaginations this summer by wreaking havoc in preseason and turning heads during camp. So who will be this year’s training camp and preseason stars?

You can almost call one wide receiver a mortal lock to do so, given how often it happens in Atlanta, and this year’s pick on my end is Xavier Malone. Just 5’9” and 180 pounds, Malone is blazing fast with recorded 40 yard dashes in the 4.3s, and was a productive receiver at Henderson State who dabbled as a returner. With the void left by Avery Williams’ injury, Malone’s speed and potential utility will make him interesting to watch this summer, and it’s not hard for me to imagine him having a handful of huge plays that draw attention in preseason.

John FitzPatrick is also a name to watch. He’s not going to necessarily shine as a receiving option, but the Falcons have little in the way of long-term depth options at tight end and FitzPatrick came to the NFL with a reputation as a punishing blocker. Falcons beat writer Tori McElhaney has been tracking how he’s looked in minicamp and noted that he’s gotten some work as essentially a sixth offensive lineman, and the potential for FitzPatrick to earn a significant role is there with a good summer and a few highlight-reel blocks along the way. Remember, he missed the 2022 season, so we didn’t get a chance to see what he could do last year.

On the other side of the ball, the answer is obvious but should be said anyways: It’s Dee Alford. Already looking really good in his second spring, Alford should push hard for the starting nickel cornerback role this summer after making a name for himself last year. The constant praise he’s getting from the coaching staff makes me think we’re in for another summer of him shining, only a bit brighter this year.

Who do you think will prove to be a breakout star—or just a pleasant surprise—this summer for the Falcons?