Now that Kurt Benkert has NFL experience -- if you count preseason games -- the Falcons’ undrafted rookie quarterback will confirm that the players are bigger and the game is faster. Yet he wants to slow down.
And he doesn’t need two college degrees to figure that out.
He learned in the Falcons’ 17-0 loss to the Jets Friday night in MetLife Stadium, where on the first play of the third quarter he threw a nifty 27-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Dontez Byrd. Later, he connected for 30 and 23 yards to rookie wideout Devin Gray.
Despite being on the trigger end of the scant few memorable offensive plays the Falcons made, however, Benkert said if he had it all to do again after completing 9 of 17 passes for 125 yards that he would’ve taken more time scanning his receivers.
After reviewing his work with quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound lad graded himself so-so, and said he’ll spend more time in practice this week on the finer points of quarterbacking than he will throwing footballs.
“I made some plays and missed some plays, but I think it’s a good starting point and I have a lot to learn from,” he said. “It’s just cleaning up what I see, trusting pre-snap that all my reads are there . . . going through them and not rushing and tucking and getting yards with my feet.”
Benkert wasted no time getting busy against the Jets, and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian changed Atlanta’s approach with the second consecutive former Cavalier under center. Starter Matt Ryan played just one series, and then 15-year veteran Matt Schaub -- who also graduated from Virginia -- finished the first half.
He completed all of the throws, yet the game plan was summarized thusly: dink ans dunk. Those nine passes added up to a modest 54 yards.
On his first snap, Benkert faked a handoff right to Justin Crawford, reversed out to the left and fired long toward the sideline. Byrd ran under the ball and gained a few more yards after the catch.
The Falcons starter said he wasn’t surprised by the play.
“Kurt has done a great job,” Ryan said. “. . . It was a good way for us to start the half with an explosive play to get us going. We’ve seen a lot of that from him through all of camp and really throughout the offseason. He’s a talented guy. He works extremely hard.”
The most impressive part of the play? Benkert made the longish throw while a bit off balance.
He did that a fair amount for Virginia, where in his senior season he set school records of 298 completions, 509 attempts (58.5 percent) and 3,205 yards.
“I keep seeing the arrow going up,” head coach Dan Quinn said of Benkert. “I’ve always liked that he has a good deep ball, and that was something he had at UVa. He does a good job of taking care of the ball; that was one of the things coming in that I think he’s worked on.”
True enough. In two seasons at Virginia, just 20 of Benkert’s 915 career passes -- or one in 46 throws -- were picked off. As a senior, he racked up 25 touchdowns passes against just nine interceptions, or one every 57 tries.
Football’s been his game for quite a while, leading to a scholarship at East Carolina University out of Island Coast High School in Cape Coral, Fla., just south of Ft. Myers. “I wouldn’t say I was heavily recruited,” he said. “Kind of a late bloomer, and I got some opportunities.’
There was a redshirt season in 2013, a little action as a reserve in ‘14, and a blown-out knee in ‘15, ending that season for him before it began.
Benkert stayed plenty busy, earning a finance degree in just three school years.
Then, he and his high school sweetheart, Samantha, went to Virginia. Kurt and “Sam” married that summer, and he started all but one game in two seasons while earning a masters degree in athletic administration.
After going undrafted in June, he chose to sign with Atlanta and the Falcons made that decision easier by guaranteeing $60,000 of his three-year, $1.72 million contract.
“He’s got purpose with his feet. He can avoid and get out of trouble, and make a throw,” Quinn said. “He just needs playing time. We’re giving that to him in practice, in games, and we’ll see how much more he can handle. Right now, he’s showing that he can handle a lot.”
Few NFL teams carry three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster in the regular season. Every team that carries two also keeps at least one on the practice squad.
It’s too early to say where Benkert will end up. As he competes with Garrett Grayson, a former third-round draft choice of the Saints (‘15) who joined Atlanta’s practice squad last October after New Orleans released him, he’s trying to get a few things in order.
Like time and game management.
And while he ran twice for 11 yards against the Jets and was sacked twice in a quarter-and-a-half, he’d rather run less frequently.
Benkert certainly doesn’t want to run out of bounds like he did in the fourth quarter when he rolled right on a passing play without ever throwing the ball.
Quinn said, “he’s got to learn from those mistakes,” but hey, rookies have a lot on their minds. Even Byrd copped to being antsy before the big pass to open the second half.
“I had a lot of jitters going into that play. It was [also] my first play offensively,” he recalled. “I would say Kurt is very confident, and he knows the offense. We’re learning a lot.”
That word, learn, comes up a lot.
“I ran out of bounds for a loss instead of throwing it away. It kind of creeped up on me too fast,” Benkert said of the pesky sideline. “There’s a few nuances here and there that I didn’t handle the right way, but the first play was a good play . . .
“There’s a lot more on my plate pre-snap, so it kind of creeps up on you as the clock’s ticking down. You have to make a lot of decisions and a lot of checks under pressure with time constraints.”
Benkert’s not in this alone.
Earlier this summer Knapp focused his attention on the new guy’s footwork.
“He changed a few things and tried to make me more consistent because in college you just kind of get back there and wait for the routes to get open. Not as many rules,” Benkert explained. “I think the rules that he’s given me, the guidelines have helped me be more consistent . . .
“Matt’s been really helpful to me, too, and Schaub as well. They’re two completely different players and they play differently, and they pick and choose what works for them. Maybe I can pick some of their things that will work for me.”
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