Without Julio Jones, Falcons’ offense is under reconstruction

Falcons offensive players run a drill during a mandatory minicamp Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Falcons offensive players run a drill during a mandatory minicamp Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

FLOWERY BRANCH — On the last day of the Falcons’ mandatory minicamp, rookie tight end Kyle Pitts committed an illegal-procedure penalty in the light 11-on-11 scrimmage Thursday.

“Take off, Pitts,” a coach yelled.

The prized rookie, who at No. 4 overall was the highest tight end ever drafted, took a lap around the field.

“We’re just try to be creative, like I said, with the rules that we have out here,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “We’re trying to have guys be accountable, be disciplined.”

Pitts wasn’t alone. On Wednesday, center Matt Hennessy must have missed the snap count. He went off on a run around the field.

Just for the record, neither Pitts nor Hennessy cut any corners around the pylons.

“We will use different methods as we go through camp,” Smith said. “If you have a good idea, I’m all for good ideas.”

The Falcons are force-feeding Pitts, who played at Florida, to integrate him into the offense.

Falcons tight ends Kyle Pitts runs a drill during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Falcons tight ends Kyle Pitts runs a drill during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“We are just trying to push and see what these guys can handle mentally and bring them along so they understand the schemes,” Smith said. “We’ve been doing a lot of individual development so when we get to training camp and they are in good shape.”

The Falcons will settle on a role for Pitts in training camp, but as with most of their weapons on offense, have been moving him around the formations in the open OTAs and the mandatory minicamp.

“But if a guy, take (tight end) Lee Smith for example, we are not going to ask Lee to do the same thing we are doing with Kyle,” Smith said. “We have to use Lee in the best role that he can (play). If we want to play big-boy football inside, that’s why Lee is here (to be a blocking tight end). But both of them are called tight ends.”

A key to the Falcons’ success will be how Smith, who plans to call his own plays, gets on the same page with quarterback Matt Ryan.

“It’s relationship building every day, play-caller to quarterback,” Smith said. “That’s just my philosophy.”

Smith and Ryan are working on that relationship. “It’s my job as a coach to push him and to also listen,” Smith said. “Matt wants to be coached, and that’s what I love about the guy. He’s going into Year 14, and he wants to be coached. The great players, they want to be coached.”

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith confers with  quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during a mandatory minicamp Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith confers with quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during a mandatory minicamp Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Smith was the offensive coordinator of a run-heavy attack with Tennessee before landing the Falcons job in January. Last season, Titans running back Derrick Henry became the eighth NFL running back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season.

Ryan, who was the league’s MVP after the 2016 regular season, mostly has played in pass-heavy offenses over his career.

“I certainly don’t think I have all of the answers, and Matt certainly doesn’t think he has all of the answers, so it’s great dialogue,” Smith said. “Sometimes I might make a (whimsical) comment to him depending on how I want to push him, but we have an open dialogue depending on what he’s talking about. It’s fun. It’s fun to work with him.”

The real bonding will occur in the games and Smith seeing firsthand how Ryan handles in-game coaching.

“It’s been fun so far, but it will take some time,” Smith said.

With wide receiver Julio Jones off to Tennessee, the Falcons will count on Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage.

New Tennessee Titans wide receiver Julio Jones stretches during practice Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. The Falcons traded the All-Pro wide receiver earlier this week. (George Walker IV/AP)
New Tennessee Titans wide receiver Julio Jones stretches during practice Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. The Falcons traded the All-Pro wide receiver earlier this week. (George Walker IV/AP)

Credit: AP Photo/George Walker IV

Credit: AP Photo/George Walker IV

“Russ has worked a lot in the slot, but like with all of our skill players, it’s our job to as coaches to push down with these guys and see what they can handle,” Smith said. “Russell has done a nice job in the slot, but we’ve moved Russell all over the place. Then we’ve got to make decisions as we get closer to the season. … We envision Russ playing multiple spots.”

Gage, who played mostly in the slot last season, had 72 catches for 786 yards and four touchdowns.

“I understand my role,” Gage said. “I understand my role may have increased, but I’m ready for it.”

Gage, who was a sixth-round pick in 2018 out of LSU, played a career-high 762 offensive snaps (68%) last season. He had 109 targets.

“There is no better teacher than the game,” said Gage, who primarily was thought to be special-teams player when drafted. “Being out there taking those reps helped me to settle into those spots. … Julio did a great job of teaching me, slowing things do for me.”

Jones also passed one major tip to Gage.

“Run,” Gage said. “That was his big thing. Speed off the ball. A lot of guys get caught up thinking and sinking into their routes. If you make a mistake, make it full speed. Run.”

Ridley, who recently had minor mid-foot surgery, is expected to be ready for training camp.

“Calvin is a beast,” Gage said. “He’s explosive.”

The receivers are confident they can move forward without the dynamic Jones.

“We have so much talent, even with Julio gone,” Gage said. “We have so much talent. Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst, me, Calvin, Mike (Davis) in the backfield. We have so much talent everywhere. I think moving forward it’s going to help all of us.”

Ridley and Pitts are the most likely weapons to see double-teams.

“All of us at some point are going have our one-on-ones,” Gage said. “I think in the NFL, it comes down to stuff like that, who’s going to win their one-on-ones. So, I’m definitely excited about the type of coverages that I might see.”

Running backs Qadree Ollison and Cordarrelle Patterson received some extra work with Davis not at practice Wednesday and Thursday.

“Q has done a nice job, but again, at this point, all that we are basing it off of is what we’ve thrown at him,” Smith said Thursday. “He’s doing a really nice job with the mental part and the (pass) protections. I’m very happy with his progress.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hands off to running back Qadree Ollison (30) while running offensive drills during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hands off to running back Qadree Ollison (30) while running offensive drills during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

After having 22 carries and four rushing touchdowns as a rookie, Ollison was buried on the bench last season. He had only one carry in 2020 and played in only three games as he struggled with pass protection.

Patterson, who’s been mostly a wide receiver and kick returner in the NFL, is expected to provide depth at running back.

“C.P., he’ll play multiple spots for us,” Smith said. “He did a nice job at the end of the year last year in Chicago running the football. His history of returning kicks (is well-documented) and he’s got some receiver background. He’s another cool versatile piece that we have in our program.”

Along the offensive line, the Falcons must improve dramatically. They have openings at center, left guard and right tackle should be an open competition. Offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford has declared that he will play the best five players.

“There is tremendous confidence within myself and then within our teammates to have the best product that we can on the field this year,” right guard Chris Lindstrom said. “We are just coming to work every single day, trying to get better. I think the connection piece as a team is really growing.

“It’s something that I’m thankful for now, that we are able to interact, be in the building. It’s fun, and it’s great to get back to that team atmosphere that COVID-19 took away from us.”

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