5 issues facing the Falcons heading into minicamp

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons are set to complete their offseason program under new coach Raheem Morris with their veteran/mandatory minicamp, which runs Monday through Wednesday.

The team, which has a revamped quarterback room and mostly new coaching staff, will reconvene for training camp in late July.

Here are five issues facing Morris and his staff heading to the minicamp:

1. Quarterback group: The Falcons signed veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins in free agency and drafted Michael Penix Jr., as the heir-apparent, with the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft.

They also retained veteran quarterback Taylor Heinicke and signed former Illinois quarterback John Paddock as a undrafted college free agent.

“Just finish a strong offseason for both of those guys,” quarterbacks coach T.J. Yates said to Atlanta media members Wednesday when asked about the goals of the minicamp. “I’d say with Mike everything is a learning process. We’re going to continue to give him a whole packet of information when he gets out of here and make sure he’s studying. Make sure he’s up to date.”

The Falcons have been pleased with Cousins’ transition as he recovers from Achilles surgery.

“With Kirk it’s just about finishing strong,” Yates said. “We’ve made a lot of progress as an offense. As a team. As a quarterback room since he’s been here, since OTAs and the offseason program started. Just finish that off strong. I know those guys will be eager to come straight back (for training camp).”

Cousins believes things are coming together.

“I feel very good about our progress over the last nine, 10 weeks as a team together,” Cousins said. “We’ve covered a lot of football, a lot of install, and there’s more to go. But just building continuity, building familiarity with teammates, with the scheme, with the coaches, that’s what it’s all been about, and we’ve definitely made those steps.”

2. Bijan Robinson use: Running back Bijan Robinson noted that the Falcons have installed a more diversified rushing attack this offseason and plan to use him in the passing game like the San Francisco 49ers use running back Christian McCaffrey.

Offensive coordinator Zac Robinson confirmed that’s the plan.

“Yeah, I think Bijan is such a talented player,” Robinson said. “He’s going to play running back first and foremost and then anyway we can find creative ways to get him the ball like the Niners do with Christian McCaffrey is exactly right.”

McCaffrey, who’s 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, rushed 272 times for a league-leading 1,459 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. He also caught 67 passes for 564 yards and seven touchdowns.

Last season, as a rookie, Bijan Robinson rushed 214 times for 976 yards and four touchdowns and caught 58 passes for 487 yards and four touchdowns.

“Continuing to tailor and tweak things and find creative ways to get him the football and not just (behind the quarterback) or in the offset-gun running the football, but using his receiver skills without overloading him too much,” Zac Robinson said. “I think that’s always going to be the balance of it. Hey, you’re playing running back, but here some of the specific nuances that we get you involved in the pass game.”

3. Speed at wide receiver: The Falcons will get a final look at the revamped wide receiver corps.

Over the offseason, Drake London was the only player under contract with NFL experience.

“We had some free agents,” new wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard said. “They were the same free agents that everybody was after. There was Hollywood Brown, Tyler Boyd. There was a Darnell Mooney. We could go on and on. Mike Evans was out there for a second. There are plenty of guys that I can bring up.”

The Falcons ended up signing Mooney and Ray-Ray McCloud. They also traded quarterback Desmond Ridder to the Cardinals for the speedy Rondale Moore.

“We just (knew) that for the vision for this football team, having Drake London being the only receiver under contract we wanted to get faster around Drake,” Hilliard said. “I mentioned (something) else that we like having guys that can create their own shots, getting in one-on-one situations and winning. Getting separation for our quarterback.”

Mooney has a 1,000-yard season to his credit and has looked sharp in OTAs. McCloud mostly has been a return man, but will get a big shot at wide receiver.

Moore, a second-round pick in 2021 who ran a 4.28 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, could benefit from a fresh start with the Falcons.

“We have some young players that are growing around (London),” Hilliard said. “We’re excited about what can possibly be.”

The Falcons also drafted wide receiver Casey Washington in the sixth round out of Illinois.

4. Questions in the secondary: The Falcons didn’t draft any defensive backs.

Clark Phillips III, Mike Hughes and Dee Alford have all had a strong offseason.

Who will play opposite of A.J. Terrell will be one of the big battles of training camp if the Falcons don’t tap into the veteran free-agent cornerback market.

The Falcons believe that Phillips has a huge upside.

“Right now, all you can evaluate is what we can (a player) do out there from a movement (standpoint),” Morris said. “You can evaluate the communication. You can evaluate knowing what to do. You can evaluate not panicking when the ball is in the air, and you can evaluate playing the ball while not leaving your feet and losing control of your body. Really, it comes down to movement, body control, and non-panic issues.”

Also, who’s going to play opposite of Jessie Bates III at safety is going to be key. Richie Grant has started 32 of 34 games over the past two seasons.

However, DeMarcco Hellams took over down the stretch last season, and Grant went back to a nickel/dime back role.

Also, safety Micah Abernathy started to develop into one of the teams’ top special-teams players last season.

5. Where’s the pass rush coming from?: The Falcons are hoping to get defensive tackle Grady Jarrett back for training camp.

He’s the key cog to them eventually building a pass rush.

New defensive line coach Jay Rodgers talks about four players rushing as one and then perhaps in some blitz situations adding a linebacker to make a five-man rush.

At this point, the Falcons will take sacks, hurries and/or quarterback hits.

“We call it disruptions,” assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray said. “If you can disrupt the quarterback, get his timing off. ... Get him off the spot and do those things, that will help everybody on our defense.”

The Falcons haven’t rushed the passer well in years.

“But if he can sit back there a pat the ball and pat the ball, it doesn’t matter who you have rushing, you’re going to be in trouble on the back end,” Gray said.

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