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Falcons forced to adjust without exhibition games, joint practices

Wide receiver Julio Jones (11) during training camp Saturday, July 28, 2018, in Flowery Branch, Ga.
Wide receiver Julio Jones (11) during training camp Saturday, July 28, 2018, in Flowery Branch, Ga.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Falcons would soon welcome the Miami Dolphins for a couple of joint practices leading to a previously scheduled exhibition Aug. 14. The ensuing week, the Falcons would then travel for additional joint practices with the Buffalo Bills before the preseason’s second scrimmage.

Never before in the Dan Quinn era have the Falcons held such joint practices with other teams. This was put in place to help foster a greater competitive environment to help thwart yet another slow start to a regular season.

The joint practices, as well as all exhibition games, were derailed because of the pandemic. Instead, Quinn and his coaching staff are forced to figure out how to properly evaluate the team’s training-camp roster in the absence of live action.

“We’re going to try to create some moments that are situation-specific that will be non-scripted, that we will do our very best to create a game-like situation, a scrimmage, so to speak,” Quinn said. “We’ll do as many of those leading up to the season as we can.”

In the absence of games, Quinn said he’ll do his best to put his players in situations that best simulate that kind of environment. For example, there will be even more situations at practice where players line up and are instructed with information that would be at their disposal only during a live game.

Undrafted rookies, in particular, are likely to be hurt the most by not having access to a full preseason. Last year, for instance, the Falcons kept undrafted receiver Olamide Zaccheaus on the 53-man roster based on how he practiced and performed over the course of several months. This year, those undrafted rookies haven’t and won’t have that opportunity.

Quinn said he went back through previous years to count the number of reps his rookies typically receive during a preseason. While it will be unlikely to match those previous numbers, the Falcons will try to provide an adequate number of reps to this year’s rookie class, although time constraints exist because of the coming acclimation and non-contact periods.

“We’ll do a little setup,” Quinn said. “‘Let’s put runners on second and third and put the guy at the plate at practice,’ so to speak. We’re going to have to find ways to put people in spaces where it’s going to (work). I’m not talking about two-minute, end-of-half or end-of-game, but specific to a player. We can control some of that in a scrimmage situation. ‘All right, this is a shot play outside.’ ‘Let’s see so-and-so run that play.’ ‘Let’s get a matchup with a running back and a linebacker.’ Those are things where we will try to have to create some when we can.”

Beginning Aug. 3, Falcons players who are not injured and not on the team’s reserve/COVID-19 list will begin strength-and-conditioning workouts. During this phase, players will divide into multiple groups and stagger workout times throughout the day. The reason for the multiple groups is so that players can maintain appropriate social distancing while working out.

After eight days of strength-and-conditioning work, a four-day ramp-up period will begin before training camp starts in earnest Aug. 17. When training camp begins, players will be able to wear full pads.

Not until then will Quinn be able to put his young players in situations that best simulate what would otherwise take place during a joint practice or preseason game.

“We’ll do as many of those leading up to the season as we can,” Quinn said. “That’s the first step to it. It’s not scripted. You don’t know the play. Let’s go match up and see how we do. We’re going to try to make as many competitive moments as we can, especially for the players that need a lot of evaluations.”

While undrafted rookies and other young players fighting to make the roster are at a disadvantage, veterans are also missing certain benefits of going through a normal preseason. While receiver Julio Jones rested last preseason to preserve his health -- and could do so again -- quarterback Matt Ryan was a regular at practice and appeared in two exhibition games. Ryan was asked during Wednesday’s PFT Live podcast for his thoughts on what it will be like to have a preseason without any games.

“I kind of like the (exhibition) games to be able to get out there and knock some of the rust off … and be able to go through it,” Ryan said. “Go through your routine. Make sure that you’re doing the things you need to do and make sure you have things ironed out. We’re not going to have that luxury.”

Ryan did add that since he’s entering his 13th NFL season, he should be able to adjust accordingly. But like Quinn, he acknowledged how difficult it will be for the young players, who not only need reps for their present team, but also won’t be able to put together exhibition-game film for other NFL teams in the event they are cut.

“It’s going to be difficult because, quite honestly, there are going to be some ballplayers that aren’t going to play in an NFL game until 2021 that are on someone’s (16-person) practice squad this year,” Quinn said. “Maybe they get up (to the active roster), but I’d imagine with a roster and a practice squad that deep, they (won’t since they) didn’t get the preseason games to go. So, when a player does get released from another club, you’re going off of his college evaluation or his pro evaluation from the season prior.”