FLOWERY BRANCH – The Falcons are taking a closer look at some of their rookies over the final two weeks of the season.
Tight end John FitzPatrick, guard Justin Shaffer and wide receiver Jared Bernhardt all returned from injury and have helped the scout teams at practice this week.
The Falcons (5-10) are set to host the Cardinals (4-11) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a game between two teams that have been eliminated from the NFC playoffs.
“We’ve got a lot of good young players in here,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “They’re all in different situations here. Some of them out of necessity had to play earlier, and some of them now are getting their opportunity. Some of them by injury and others by decision-making, so we’ve got a lot of good young players.”
The Falcons are hoping to continue to develop the youth on their roster. The team noted it leads the NFL in players under 26.
“There’s a lot of huge growth that you have from Year 1 to Year 2, that’s a big point,” Smith said. “Look at how much growth (Pro Bowler) Chris Lindstrom has had from Year 3 to Year 4. Those are huge years from years two, three, and four, and that’s what you like to see as we continue to build.”
FitzPatrick had surgery on both of his feet and started the season on injured reserve.
“It was a long year on IR and not practicing,” FitzPatrick said after Thursday’s practice. “It is nice to be out there with my teammates.”
FitzPatick, who played at Marist School and Georgia, was selected in the sixth round (213th overall). The Falcons wanted to get a look at him before heading into the offseason. He’s agile at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds.
“I played soccer until junior in high school,” FitzPatrick said. “I always thought that was what I was going to do, and then football kind of took over. That has definitely helped me with my agility, cutting and stuff like that.”
FitzPatrick was moving around fluidly during the open portions of practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
“It’s been going great,” FitzPatrick said. “Maybe a little rusty to start out, the first practice. But definitely I’ve seen growth each and every day.”
Parker Hesse and MyCole Pruitt have been getting most of the snaps at tight end with Kyle Pitts on injured reserve.
“Listening to the older guys in the tight end (meeting) room,” FitzPatrick said. “Just getting feedback about what they think about certain routes, certain blocking schemes. Just being a sponge with (tight ends) coach (Justin) Peelle.”
FitzPatrick already is planning his offseason workouts.
“I’m going to hit the ground running,” FitzPatrick said. “Just working out here. I think (quarterback Desmond Ridder) is staying here in Atlanta. I’ll be with him quite a bit, him and (running back) Tyler (Allgeier). So, we’ll be working on routes and stuff like that. So, I’ll hit the ground running pretty quick maybe the first week or so after the season is over.”
Shaffer, who was taken in the sixth round (190th overall), sustained a high ankle sprain and was on the practice-squad injured reserve.
“It is a good feeling,” said Shaffer about returning to practice this week. “I had been out for four, five weeks. I was kind of mentally drained. Man, I missed football. I was really just more happy to be back and be able to give the team the help, the look that they needed.”
Shaffer, who played at Cedar Grove High and Georgia, said he’s fully recovered and ready to resume his pro career.
“I’m just attacking it every day with my all,” Shaffer said. “Really just continue to learn how to be a pro, ways to be a pro. Just taking all of that information in.”
The Falcons have started Elijah Wilkinson, Matt Hennessy, Colby Gossett and Chuma Edoga at left guard. Lindstrom is entrenched at right guard.
“I look at it as motivation,” Shaffer said. “I go back and watch the film. I look at what I need to work on. Look at what’s stopping me from getting on the field and stuff like that. I go to the coach, sit down with the coach and talk to him if I need to.”
Bernhardt made the team as a undrafted rookie free agent. He played in two games before he suffered a groin/hamstring injury.
“Just trying to get my legs back underneath me,” Bernhardt said. “Do anything I can to help the team these last two weeks.”
Bernhardt, a former lacrosse player, led the Falcons in receiving during the exhibition games, with five catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. He played in regular-season games against the Rams and Seahawks.
He was running the Cardinals’ pass routes against the first-team defense.
“Definitely, I’ll never come in here and try to take anything for granted,” Bernhardt said. “I just want to get that chance to go out there and compete and help my teammates get ready for Sunday.”
Bernhardt said the injury was tough.
“It was something that happened,” Bernhardt said. “You have ups and downs and you have to keep pushing forward. I can’t let some of those setbacks determine the final outcome. I just keep working, rehabbing and working just to get back out here to help the team practice.”
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
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Atlanta Falcons 2022 schedule
Sept. 11 Saints 27, Falcons 26
Sept. 18 Rams 31, Falcons 27
Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23
Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20
Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15
Oct. 16 Falcons 28, 49ers 14
Oct. 23 Bengals 35, Falcons 17
Oct. 30 Falcons 37, Panthers 34 OT
Nov. 6 Chargers 20, Falcons 17
Nov. 10 Panthers 25, Falcons 15
Nov. 20 Falcons 27, Bears 24
Nov. 27 Commanders 19, Falcons 13
Dec. 4 Steelers 19, Falcons 16
Dec. 18 Saints 21, Falcons 18
Dec. 24 Ravens 17, Falcons 9
Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.
Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD
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