Without wide receiver Julio Jones, the Falcons concluded a mandatory three-day minicamp and their offseason program on Thursday.
The Falcons tried their collective best to downplay the absence of the four-time All-Pro player, who’s holding out in a contract dispute.
“I told them this is the finest offseason that I’ve been a part of from a player and coaching side of it in terms of how hard guys went for it,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
Here are the 10 things we learned from the minicamp:
1. Camp Brotherhood III: Quinn is excited that quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones are scheduled to work together in July. Ryan is gathering about 12 players together to work on some nuances of the offense and get Jones up to speed on the new wrinkles.
“The good news is, it’s always good when you can get everybody together,” Quinn said. “The good news is I know that he and Matt got a chance to work together. Not just with him, but with the other receivers as well. I know that is taking place now and this summer. That’s something that they always do and will continue to do as well.”
The camp will not be held in Miami like in the previous two years.
2. Battle for guard: Newcomer Brandon Fusco and incumbent Wes Schweitzer both took turns with the first-team offensive line.
Fusco was signed to a three-year, $12.5 million contract this offseason.
“He’s a smart, tough football player who can move,” offensive line coach Chris Morgan said. “He’s played a lot of good ball in this league. He’ll add to the competition.”
Schweitzer played 1,016 offensive snaps (98.9 percent) as he started all 18 games at right guard last season.
“Wes got better every game,” Morgan said. “He got better as the season progressed.”
3. Calling plays: Rookie quarterback Kurt Benkert, the former Virginia standout, will likely get some exhibition season action.
“Kurt is doing great so far,” offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said. “It’s hard with the college kids these days. They come out of the spread offense where there’s no play-calling or it’s a hand signal.
“The biggest challenge for rookie quarterbacks over the last six years, no matter who I’ve had, is just getting to regurgitate the terminology.”
So, Benkert is working on just calling the plays correctly.
“You’ve got to call it out over and over again,” Knapp said. “That’s been his first challenge to go through and he’s coming through it pretty good as far as getting the play from (offensive coordinator Steve) Sarkisian and then going to the huddle and giving it to the offense. He’s coming along fine. It’s going to be slow, but he’s coming along fine.”
4. Minicamp injury update: Left guard Andy Levitre (arm) and defensive end Takkarrist McKinley (shoulder) were working off to the side with the training staff. Both are expected to be ready for training camp in late July.
Linebacker Foye Oluokun (toe) and cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson (sickness) suffered injuries. Wreh-Wilson returned to practice on Thursday.
5. Harlow update: Sean Harlow, who was drafted in the fourth round last season out of Oregon State, is making progress in his conversion from college tackle to professional guard.
“It’s a big adjustment moving a guy (from tackle) to becoming an inside player when he hasn’t really done it a whole lot,” Morgan said. “He’s grown up. He’s maturing. His strength is in a good spot. His understanding of the offense is better. I want to see the best version of him.”
6. Harman on Hooper: Falcons tight ends coach Wade Harman, who coached new talk sports super star and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe in Baltimore, is expecting third-year tight end Austin Hooper to continue to improve.
“I know his work ethic and mentality has been outstanding,” Harman said. “He’s spent a lot of time with Matt (Ryan) together doing a lot of one-on-ones, trying to make sure that they’re getting on the same page.”
Hooper caught 49 of 65 targets (75.4 percent) last season for 526 yards and three touchdowns.
“One thing that we’ve talked about is just being consistent,” Harman said.
7. Will Falcons fine Jones? According to the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, Jones can be fined $14,070 for the first day, $28,150 for the second day and $42,215 for the third day, for a total of $84,435.
8. USO trip set: Quinn and several players will make a USO tour visit to military bases in Iraq this offseason.
The team will be represented by kicker Matt Bryant, guard Ben Garland and center Alex Mack in addition to Quinn.
“This time to head over to two bases to see men and woman who are the soldiers there, seeing them on their turf, that’s meaningful,” Quinn said. “We get to do some on the bases here and we love bring the soldiers to practice, but to go and meet them there, what a really cool experience and one that I’m looking forward to.”
9. Paulsen is a survivor: Tight end Logan Paulsen, who was signed to essentially replace Levine Toilolo as the team’s top blocking tight end, is making an impact.
“He’s been really good in our room,” Harman said. “Veteran guy. He played in a similar system with Kyle (Shanahan) in Washington and he played for him last year in San Francisco.
“So, he really knows kind of where the system came from. He’s a veteran guy who’s lasted in this league and there’s a reason he’s lasted.
“He not the most talented or the fastest tight end in the league, but he’s a very good blocker. He works very hard at his craft and he does a really good job with the young guys.
“He knows what it takes to survive in the NFL.”
10. Ridley blending in well: Rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley had a strong showing. He ran great routes while working outside and from the slot.
“With Calvin you certainly see the ability and you have the accomplishments that he has, I certainly feel like, that is visually pretty easy to see,” wide receiver coach Dave Brock said. “The thing that has really impressed me about Calvin is that he is an extremely hard worker. Really good in the classroom. He does a great job of having the ability to take it from the meeting room to the field.”