5 things we learned from Falcons’ OTAs

Credit: AJC

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Running back Jeremy McNichols, who played for Falcons coach Arthur Smith in Tennessee, looks ahead to his possible role with this year's team.

Credit: AJC

FLOWERY BRANCH – The Falcons wrapped up their OTAs, and all that is left in the offseason program is the mandatory minicamp, which is set for Tuesday through Thursday.

The Falcons don’t plan to ramp up things for the minicamp and will continue to focus on teaching and development.

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“Some people in the past may have tried to do some competitive things in minicamp,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Thursday. “Where we are at, with today’s climate, we are not going to do that.”

So, don’t expect any “Oklahoma Drills” for minicamp.

“The guys have done a really good job with a lot of stuff we are doing,” Smith said. “Not only on the field, but off the field in the classroom and with strength training and development. I’m pleased with the progress. We know that we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

Here are five things we learned over the past three weeks of OTAs, which had three open media sessions:

1. Who’s in, who’s out: Linebacker Deion Jones, a former Pro Bowler, had offseason shoulder surgery and missed OTAs.

He’s expected back for training camp, but will have to compete for his starting job. It was noted that while talking to AJC columnist Michael Cunningham about the defense, defensive coordinator Dean Pees did not utter Jones’ name.

Mykal Walker worked next to Rashaan Evans at inside linebacker with the first-team defense during the open practices.

Jones, defensive tackle Vincent Taylor (knee) and fullback Keith Smith (knee) are out injured and expected back for training camp.

“Those guys won’t be out on the field (for minicamp),” Smith said. “I anticipate everybody being ready to go by camp. We’ll have to assess. We’ll see where they are at.”

While running back/wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, running back Damien Williams and cornerback Casey Hayward were not at three open OTAs, Smith is expecting 100% attendance for minicamp.

“There are lot of unknowns,” Smith said. “Guys are out of here for five weeks. I have to anticipate that everybody will be ready to go by (the start of) camp (July 26). If there is a surprise and somebody is not (here), I’ll be happy to let y’all know.”

2. Goals and objectives: The Falcons are undergoing several major changes at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, cornerback and edge rusher, but played it smart during OTAs.

Smith noted that the Bears were fined for too much contact.

“Everything (does) matter,” Smith said. “You have a purpose while you’re out here. It’s just a different evaluation. A lot more of it right now is mentally. You’re just building it up. Everybody learns different ways.”

Veteran quarterback Marcus Mariota expectedly appeared miles ahead of rookie Desmond Ridder in the open practices.

“The act of doing in the best way to learn for anybody,” Smith said.

The Falcons plan to get live evaluations of the quarterbacks from their exhibition games and joint practices with the Jaguars and Jets.

“They certainly don’t get hit in practice and they don’t feel anything at their feet,” Smith said. “You can try to simulate that stuff with some different props, but it’s not the same. It’s part of the build-up process.”

3. Linebackers stacked: After losing Foye Oluokun, who led the NFL in tackles in 2021, in free agency, the Falcons re-stocked the linebacker position with free-agent signings of Evans and Nick Kwiatkoski. They also drafted Troy Andersen in the second round out of Montana State.

If Jones can win his spot and Walker, Kwiatkosi and Andersen can help the defense, look for Pees to get creative with the linebacker unit.

“It’s going to be a tough group to make decisions on really to be frank,” Smith said. “Assuming they keep progressing like we think they will what it will also do is give you an opportunity, if a lot of guys can help you, you can create different personnel packages. … If a guy is a good player, we’ll find a role for him.”

In addition to Evans, Jones, Walker and Andersen, the Falcons have inside linebackers Dorian Etheridge and Nathan Landman.

4. Edge rushers. The Falcons have been pleased with the offseason of outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter and the progress of second-year outside linebacker Ade Ogundeji.

“Lorenzo has played a lot of meaningful snaps in the NFL,” Smith said.

Ogundeji played 527 defensive snaps (48%) last season.

“Ade, guys just continue to learn year after year, but there are probably some experiences that he can pass down to (rookies) DeAngelo (Malone) and Arnold Ebiketie. (Ogundeji is saying), this is what I went through as a rookie.”

5. Pitts, Franks and depth at tight end. The Falcons aren’t necessarily counting on Kyle Pitts to automatically improve by leaps and bounds in his second season, and they are experimenting with Feleipe Franks at tight end.

“Even when I was a player, that was impressed upon me,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said. “I don’t necessarily think that fits everybody. I think guys in this league, if they get the opportunity, they all grow at different times. Some guys come into this league and they are great players.

“It’s just hits their brains right, and they are able to react that way.”

For other players, it sometimes take longer.

“To automatically assume that Year 2 is the year … I’m sure there a lot of case studies that say yes, and I’m sure there are some that say no,” Ragone said. “To me, it’s a about knowing the individual and how that guy is learning the offense.”

Pitts had strong OTAs.

“I think Kyle has done a good job with the attitude to come in here and to me, it all starts with the attitude of the player,” Ragone said. “If you’re in the attitude of growth. If you want to accept that you want to get better, I think anything is possible.”

Franks spent some time lining up at tight end and even caught a touchdown pass Thursday during red zone seven-on-seven.

“Right now, it doesn’t mean that doesn’t change, but right now he’s working more at tight end than quarterback,” Ragone said. “But he also is a quarterback.”

In addition to Pitts, the Falcons have Anthony Firkser, Parker Hesse, Brayden Lenius, Tucker Fisk and John FitzPatrick at tight end.

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