FLOWERY BRANCH — Before the players were dismissed on Thursday, Falcons Coach Mike Smith had a final message for them.
They have a chunk of off time before reporting for training camp in the last week of July.
“It was the same message that we give every year,” Smith said. “You want guys to be careful when they are out. They need to unplug a little bit, but at the same time it’s not unplugging like at the end of the season.”
He wants the players to continue to work out.
“They need to stay on the regiment with their weight training and conditioning and be careful,” Smith said. “We want them to be refreshed.”
Smith plans to get in a little trout fishing and will value his family time.
“We certainly hope that guys have taken most of their vacation time prior to this,” Smith said.
You could sense that Smith is not a big fan of the new collective bargaining rules, which basically banned offseason contact. One of the major areas of concern for the Falcons is the offensive line.
Smith and his staff couldn’t really evaluate the offensive and defensive lines because the players were just basically playing tag up front.
If the Falcons are going to continue being a playoff team and make a step up, the offensive line must improve.
So, while we are going to get to five things we learned during minicamp, the biggest question remains unanswered. Can the offensive line protect Matt Ryan long enough for Dirk Koetter’s vertical passing game to work? We’ll just hold off on that question until training camp opens on July 26.
While Smith liked having an offseason, he was clearly not happy with the non-contact rules.
“We’ve got to address a number of areas,” Smith said. “The two areas where I think we’re going to have the most competition and the biggest battles will be on the offensive and defensive lines. We have depth at both of those positions. I think it’s going to be interesting to evaluate those guys. We’ve got somewhat of an evaluation process through theses OTAs and minicamp.”
Basically, Smith wants to see some pads popping. They have to know if Sam Baker is fully recovered or if they have to go into scramble mode and try to find a veteran or get one of the younger players ready.
They have to sort out the all-comers competition at right guard. Garrett Reynolds looked good taking most of the snaps with the first-team, but he’ll have to hold off rookie Peter Konz, veteran Vince Manuwai, Joe Hawley and Mike Johnson.
Also, I just pencil in Todd McClure at center, but old Mud Duck is not going to play forever. Eventually, Hawley or Konz will take over at center.
“We haven’t been able to evaluate like we’d like because these were not padded practices,” Smith said. “We’ll get a better evaluation when training camp starts.”
Smith is anticipating that the battle at defensive tackle will be fierce. Jonathan Babineaux and Corey
Peters will have to battle to retain their spots. But Smith looks at the defensive line as having seven starters because of their rotational system. Peria Jerry and Vance Walker will have to earn their playing time.
Kroy Biermann will have to hold off Lawrence Sidbury and Jonathan Massaquoi in the defensive end rotation. There could be some more longshots in the group like Cliff Matthews at defensive end and Travian Robertson at defensive tackle.
“We are looking at a number of guys at different spots both on the offensive and defensive lines,” Smith said. “We need to make those evaluations through the first two or three weeks of training camp to try to solidify the guys who are going to be starting for us.”
Since we’ve covered what we didn’t learn at minicamp – pass protection and pass rush — let’s get to things we did learn.
1. A committee will replace Eric Weems. It is going to take two or perhaps three players to replace Weems, who was the punt returner, kickoff returner and one of the leading tacklers. Harry Douglas and Dominique Franks appear set to battle for the punt returner job. James Rodgers and Antone Smith appear set to battle for the kickoff returner job.
“A lot of the roster moves will have a lot to do with it and all that type of stuff,” special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong said. “I’ll just try to coach the group and go from there. A young guy has got to step up or a veteran has to step up and fill that role as the core cover guy. Eric wore so many hats for us and did an outstanding job. We’ll have to split his role into several different guys obviously.”
2. The pass coverage will be improved with my new friend “Deuce, Deuce!” Asante Samuel has promised to slide his 15 percent (talking to the media) rule to the side for us. That’s good for the fans!!! We like him already. But he has single-handedly elevated the intensity of practices with his positive talking and good-natured ribbing of the offense.
Wide receiver Roddy White finally has someone to return his barbs.
“I love that guy,” White said. “He’s been here three weeks and I love him. He brings out the energy. He keeps the defense up high. A lot of people are doing a lot more talking since he’s come out there. He’s
brought that spark that we needed on defense and we love him.”
With the addition of Samuels, Dunta Robinson appears to be pretty happy, too.
“We are gelling as a secondary,” Robinson said. “That’s the most important thing to us. We are learning each other. Myself, [Brent] Grimes and Asante, we are learning how to play with each other. That was the most important thing going into training camp. We are getting comfortable with each other and we are having fun. That was the biggest thing.”
3. The defense will be unpredictable on third downs. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan threw the kitchen sink at the offense during minicamp. He clearly has a mandate to improve the third down defense. “We feel that it’s an honor that he feels he can rush seven or eight guys and he has confidence in his guys on the back end,” Robinson said. “Pressure means the ball is coming out fast. That will give us an opportunity to make a lot of plays. We are ready for the opportunity.”
4. Julio Jones is going to the Pro Bowl. The second-year wide receiver is starting to look very polished. “It’s great, not only spending time with [wide receivers coach Terry] Robiskie, but with Matt [Ryan],” Jones said. “Just connecting on balls and knowing where I’m supposed to be at, at the right time and right depth. That’s very critical for me.”
5. The Falcons will be fine at middle linebacker. Both Lofa Tatupu and Akeem Dent looked at home while rotating with the first team defense. It looks like either one of them will be able to replace Curtis Lofton’s tackling skill in the middle. “Akeem is a young player that we’re hoping just continues to mature and get better and better,” Nolan said. “Hopefully that’s happening. He’s done a real good job out here. Lofa is a dependable guy that’s a veteran, who has some pelts on the wall. He’s done an outstanding job and he gets a lot of respect from the players around him because of that. He’s also a willing player as far as the young guys go. He’s not a selfish older player, where it’s all about him. He’s been a leader. He’s been to the Pro Bowl. He’s been to the Super Bowl. He’s done a lot of things. He remains the same guy, only a little bit older. That will be an interesting thing to watch as far as competition goes.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog