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  1. https://theathletic.com/2019738/2020/08/24/rookie-rising-how-mykal-walker-has-established-himself-early-in-training-camp/?source=emp_shared_article In the months that followed their names being called in the 2020 NFL Draft, the rookies across the league went to work … remotely. The week training camp opened was the first chance any coach from across the league could get a live look at these new players. The story was no different for Falcons rookie linebacker Mykal Walker after he was picked in the fourth round by the Falcons. He called learning on a computer screen night and day from actually being able to run around a football field. He realized that very early on, in fact, saying his “Aha” moment came the day he was given Julio Jones as an assignment. The offense was running a play-action pass with Jones running to the corner. It was Walker’s job to be underneath Jones. Walker laughed. Even as he ran as fast as he could, Walker didn’t get to his spot. “I was like, ‘OK. I have to rethink,’” Walker said with a small laugh. “Julio is a little faster than what you see on tape.” But Jones’ explosiveness on that first day shouldn’t completely overshadow what Walker has been able to do since. He has intercepted a few tipped passes and as practices have gone on, Walker has worked his way up the depth chart. By Monday, he was running consistently in and out of the first-team rotation. At times, he was in with either Deion Jones or Foye Oluokun. Even as a rookie without a rookie camp or preseason game to make an impression, Walker is doing just fine. When asked how he has started so quickly in his first training camp that should lend itself to a slower start from rookies considering the circumstances, Walker said the work he did with assistant head coach/linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich in all of those remote meetings this summer played a big part. “For me to pick up plays, I just try to combine them as much as possible, and I think (Ulbrich) does the same thing,” Walker said. “I think he did a really good job of teaching me the scheme, and now I’m able to come out here and play fast.” The linebacker’s journey to the Falcons is an interesting one. It started at Fresno State, where Walker was anything and everything the Bulldogs’ defense needed him to be. Thinking back on his Fresno State days, Walker laughed, saying contrary to what he has shown with the Falcons so far in camp, he was actually a 220-pound defensive lineman for the Bulldogs. But he never quite stayed in one role as he was the embodiment of a hybrid defender. He played standing up and with his hand on the ground, on the end of the line or in a more traditional linebacker role. The Falcons want to see a more traditional role for Walker. That’s why he has been side-by-side Jones and Oluokun, a spot Walker said has been beneficial to him in recent weeks. On and off the field, he’s seeking out those two. “I’ll go in for my four plays and come out, and the first thing I want to (do is) walk right over to them,” Walker said, mentioning Dante Fowler Jr. as someone he has leaned on for specific tidbits in the pass rush, as well. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the first thing you notice about Walker is his athleticism coupled with his length. The Falcons are taking an extensive look into just how they can capitalize on those two things in specific matchups down the road. “So, sometimes as a defensive player, whether it’s a linebacker or a safety, who can they guard? Who can they match up on?” Quinn said. “Not everybody matches up well on each player, but a guy with (Walker’s) length and speed, he’s certainly somebody that you’re looking for with tight ends, how they match up with him.” Quinn put Walker and fellow rookie Matt Hennessy in the same conversation, saying the linebacker and left guard are under quite a bit of pressure in camp. Along with cornerback A.J. Terrell, their transition into the league needs an acceleration button because of how important it is for the coaching staff to get them ready. They are going to be counted on to play early, Quinn said, and that means they have to be ready, which subsequently means the pressure is on to get them there. Walker commented on the challenges rookies are facing this year. He noted that, yes there are fewer opportunities to stand out, but he also said that he’s looking at it as just that … a challenge. “The challenge is on,” he said, “and I just take on the challenge. It’s never been about proving people wrong. It’s about proving myself right.” Practice observations and notes • The secondary continues to get after it. Matt Schaub threw two interceptions Monday, one by rookie Delrick Abrams and the other by Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Early in practice, Isaiah Oliver had a pass from Matt Ryan hit him right in the chest but couldn’t hang for another one. Kendall Sheffield, Terrell and Keanu Neal all flashed at times during the scrimmage with Neal doing some good things in response to the offense’s run game. • Jamon Brown was back at practice after going into concussion protocol last week and worked sparingly with the second team. Marlon Davidson is still out, and Quinn said Sunday Davidson likely will be out for a few more days with a knee strain. • Hennessy continued to take the majority of the first-team reps at left guard, and he seems to be settling in nicely between Alex Mack and Jake Matthews. • The Falcons are trying out a bunch of different combinations on the defensive line. Of course, there are the shoo-ins like Grady Jarrett and Fowler, but there was a steady rotation of defensive linemen suiting up to go against the first-team offense. Takk McKinley and Tyeler Davison made the most rounds with that first team, alongside Jarrett and Fowler, but players like Steven Means, Allen Bailey and John Cominsky also took significant snaps there. Quinn praised Cominsky earlier in the morning saying, “From the first practice with pads all the way up through (Monday), he has seemed like somebody that’s taking that jump” from Year 1 to Year 2. • The special teams were on a much fuller display Monday with everyone getting to see a bit more from kicker Younghoe Koo, who was 2-for-3 in field goals between 35 and 40 yards, and punter Sterling Hofrichter, who looked reliable in his handful of punts during the scrimmage with nice hang time and distance on a majority of the punt. Quinn said for Hofrichter, in particular, the next few weeks will be about putting him in different punting situations that he will face (timing, distance, where on the field he’s punting from, etc.), but Quinn said he has been pleased with the seventh-round pick so far. Brandon Powell and Chris Rowland continued to be the go-to players for punt returns, but Quinn did say before practice that Olamide Zaccheaus and Ito Smith will get reps in the future.
  2. https://theathletic.com/2025113/2020/08/26/this-kids-got-that-it-matt-hennessys-journey-to-a-spot-with-the-falcons/ By Tori McElhaney Matt Hennessy’s very first college snap taken at center was during the first game of his redshirt freshman season against Notre Dame in South Bend in 2017. The game itself wasn’t very memorable. Notre Dame was expected to win and did. Temple lost 49-16, but when Chris Wiesehan returned home, he remembers telling his wife, Renee, that a young Hennessy had impressed him. Better yet, Wiesehan said he told her that Hennessy was going to be a part of an NFL Draft someday. “This kid is going to play on Sunday night. I don’t know where. I don’t know when that draft pick will be. But he’s so talented athletically, and his focus, his character, his leadership skills are there. He doesn’t get rattled,” Wiesehan remembered telling his wife. “I said, ‘This guy is going to be an elite player.'” Wiesehan remembers the first time he saw Hennessy a couple of years before he made this prediction. It was at a recruiting camp when Hennessy was playing tackle for Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey. Hennessy’s measurables jumped off the page at Wiesehan right away. When he’s recruiting, Wiesehan likes his linemen lighter in terms of sheer pounds. He said he always can add weight later if the athleticism is there. He did it with Hennessy and just recently as the tight ends coach at Georgia Tech with the Yellow Jackets’ first tight end in more than a decade, Tyler Davis, who was picked by Jacksonville in the sixth round of this year’s draft. Looking back on that Notre Dame game, Wiesehan said he knew Hennessy had to get bigger and stronger, but since their introduction a couple of years before, Wiesehan also knew that the way Hennessy’s mind worked meant there was little that had to change mentally for the lineman to succeed. Wiesehan said he could see Hennessy at center, so in that recruiting camp, Wiesehan moved Hennessy to see what he could do. Wiesehan said Hennessy flourished at the spot even then, and Wiesehan offered Hennessy right on the spot. “I think his focus and his attention to detail (stand out) immediately,” Wiesehan said. “For those kids in camp, there is a lot of information getting thrown at them at a rapid pace, and Matt just simply absorbed that information, processed that information and applied the techniques that I was trying to throw at him. In one-on-one situations, I was telling him what to correct, how to correct it, and in the next rep he was working to apply those things.” But Wiesehan said Hennessy really came into his own and evolved into a true potential top-100 draft pick when he found his voice. In all actuality, that wasn’t who Hennessy was originally, Wiesehan said. Hennessy always was going to be the player who knew every call, knew every protection, but he was going to lead by his actions more than his words. This works for a lot of people, but Wiesehan needed Hennessy to have a voice, and when he finally found it, it transformed his game. “I was still growing,” Hennessy said, “but I would say spring of 2018, going into my second year starting, I really did. I found my voice.” He said he saw a shift in his confidence at that point. It’s what he leans on even now as he transitions to the pro game. When discussing the voice that Hennessy has established in recent years, Wiesehan laughed as he recalled that he told the Falcons Hennessy’s voice might be a little subdued in the beginning. “I was like, ‘This is a guy who’s going to go in as a rookie, and he’s going to shut his mouth,'” Wiesehan said. “He’s going to know every answer to the test, but he’s not going to be self-absorbed. He’s very self-aware. He understands a room of veterans and where he’ll fit in that room, but he will still go out and compete his butt off and won’t bow down to anybody, but he really has that self-awareness.” But Falcons coach Dan Quinn praised Hennessy even early in camp as the Falcons worked to establish him in the competition for the starting left guard position, where Quinn is not quite ready to name a starter. Hennessy has been featured there numerous times during the past few weeks of training camp, hoping to beat out James Carpenter for the spot. Quinn said the staff has thrown a lot of things at Hennessy during this training camp period without the cushion of any preseason games to fall back on. The Falcons are relying on rookies such as Hennessy, A.J. Terrell and Mykal Walker to make a difference immediately. That means they had to hit the ground running at the start of camp. Quinn said Hennessy, in particular, keeps answering each challenge tossed his way. At Temple, Hennessy was a decorated center, but the Falcons don’t really need him at center with veteran Alex Mack holding down that position. Funny enough, Hennessy said when he was making the move from tackle to center from high school to college it was Mack’s film that he really gravitated toward. Now teammates, Hennessy said he benefits greatly from just being around Mack every day and that he wanted to mimic Mack’s gotta-get-it-done attitude then and now. During the offseason when the rookies were learning all of the nuances of the Falcons’ scheme remotely, Hennessy said Mack checked in on him almost every day. Mack made sure Hennessy was up to speed on everything and answered his questions. Sometimes, Hennessy said, he wouldn’t know what question to ask, but Mack asked and answered it for him. “I have never been around a teammate who goes out of his way to help other people like that,” Hennessy said. “It’s been pretty remarkable.” In terms of making the move from center to guard, Wiesehan said it’s actually a move that could be beneficial to Hennessy in his first year in the league. While there has to be significant communication across the offensive line, there’s a lot of pressure on the centers to make the initial calls and adjustments and pass that information down the line. “I think for him to go play guard, there’s a little bit of relief there for a rookie,” Wiesehan said. “There’s a little bit of relief where he can just go out, get the calls, play football and play fast.” Wiesehan also noted what Hennessy said about playing beside Mack: It can bring only good things the rookie’s way. “Alex has been one of the best centers in the game for a long, long time. … For Matt to be in the same room with a guy like that and playing next to a guy like that,” Wiesehan said, “it’s only going to help him ascend.” And Wiesehan has had a firsthand account of Hennessy’s ascension since he first saw him at that high school camp those few years ago. The two have remained close since. When asked about his relationship with Wiesehan, Hennessy said Wiesehan has been there every step of the way, even when Wiesehan left Philadelphia to follow Geoff Collins to Atlanta when he took the head coaching job at Georgia Tech in 2019. The two talk a lot; they talked through all of the pre-draft jitters and continue to talk with training camp well underway. “He’s able to give me all the reminders I need just to stay in a good place mentally,” Hennessy said. From Wiesehan’s perspective, there’s one story that sticks out the most. It’s the night Wiesehan took Hennessy to the hospital in 2018. During a Friday walk-through before a Saturday game, Wiesehan noticed that Hennessy was in some discomfort. Asking him what was going on, Hennessy noted pain in his side. Wiesehan said Hennessy is the type of player who if he gets dinged up, you never would know it unless you looked at the training chart and saw that he went to the trainer for something. He just never complains about anything. So when Hennessy noted his side was bothering him, Wiesehan took him to the trainers and team doctors. With everyone coming to the same conclusion that everything seemed fine, Hennessy played the next day. Wiesehan said he actually played, grading out to a 93 or 94 if he remembers correctly. But a couple of days later, as Wiesehan sat at the Temple facility going over the run game for the week ahead late on a Monday night, he got a call from Hennessy. He was in more pain, so Wiesehan jumped in the car and took him to the hospital. Wiesehan remembers the concern he had, as Hennessy was in obvious discomfort, but the two stayed up all night chatting and bonding in that hospital room. The undisclosed issue wasn’t serious — Hennessy was back on the field playing as if he had never missed a beat two weeks later — but Wiesehan still remembers that night well. “That’s one that sticks in my mind about how much I love that kid,” Wiesehan said. “I will never forget that: how concerned I was, how concerned his parents were, and then he comes back and plays great a couple of weeks later.” Wiesehan has seen Hennessy play in game after game, and even now, as Hennessy prepares to hopefully start for the Falcons in his rookie season, Wiesehan has held on to the assumption that Hennessy could be an asset at the professional level. He told his wife so all the way back in 2017. It’s a perspective that’s never changed for as long as he has known Hennessy. “(There are) those moments where you’re like, ‘This kid’s got that “it,”‘” Wiesehan said. Practice observations and notes • Mack and Todd Gurley did not practice Wednesday on a scheduled day off for the two. Marlon Davidson, Olamide Zaccheaus and Qadree Ollison also were out, all sidelined due to injury. Davidson is still resting a knee strain. Quinn said Kurt Benkert was excused from practice Wednesday “for the very best of personal reasons.” His wife is expecting the couple’s first child and posted to Instagram on Tuesday that it might be her “last bump photo,” so take that information as you will. • The Falcons are continuing to play around with a bunch of different defensive line combinations. Allen Bailey, John Cominsky and Steven Means were in heavy rotation with Dante Fowler Jr., Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davison and Takk McKinley. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Charles Harris also got some quality playing time on Wednesday. • The Falcons spent much of Wednesday working on third-down and red zone situations, particularly a couple of yards from the goal line. In the latter of those periods, Walker got to the quarterback quickly on a blitz, and it likely would have been a sack in a real-time situation. Also in that period, LaRoy Reynolds came up with a big stop on the 1-yard line, crashing pads with Ito Smith, who was trying to cut back through the gap. • The Falcons worked on field goal formations on Wednesday, and Younghoe Koo was 5-for-5 in his attempts.
  3. In January, coach Dan Quinn had a frank discussion with Takk McKinley about what the Falcons needed from him when training camp rolled around in August. The coaching staff wanted him to be quicker and to be able to use his speed at full capacity at all times in a game. Weighing in between 265 and 270 pounds wasn’t working for him. McKinley said because of the way his body was shaped for much of the season last year that he wasn’t as fast or as quick as he should have been. He felt fatigued toward the end of games. He was wearing down a lot faster. What the Falcons staff challenged McKinley to do in the offseason was drop some weight as he rehabbed a nagging shoulder injury that he has been dealing with for years. It was time McKinley worked to get down to what he said was his college weight. “I had a motor then,” McKinley said. “I was flying off the edge with speed. I didn’t get tired as easy.” Now well into training camp, McKinley weighs in at 248 pounds after an offseason of intense cardio and dieting. “It’s definitely the best he’s looked,” Quinn said. An offseason day for McKinley started at 7 a.m. as he set out to rehab his shoulder after having surgery at the beginning of the year. His workouts were tailored to that shoulder, trying to build its strength and prevent future injuries. By 9 a.m., he was either on the bike or on the track. McKinley said he called up his former high school track coach to give him a cardio plan. Once he was able, McKinley said that every day was spent on the track. His diet, however, was what McKinley said was the biggest piece of his transformation. He used a meal plan program called Nutrition Solutions. To maintain his current weight, it’s a plan he’s using even now during training camp. “There’s no reason to work out if you’re still eating McDonald’s, Popeyes,” McKinley said. “Diet has been huge for me, and I’m sticking to it.” The uptick in cardio and the conscious effort to diet were two things McKinley said he didn’t focus on much during his other stints rehabbing his injured shoulder. But he called the Falcons’ decision to decline his fifth-year option a “wake-up call.” “It was more motivation,” he said. “It made me hungry. Not saying that I wasn’t hungry in the past; it was just ‘I gotta go prove it.’” Quinn said there are several players in the same position as McKinley, with something to prove. And when you take a look at the entire defensive line, there are a lot of players — Grady Jarrett aside — who fall into that category. Dante Fowler Jr. has to prove that last year’s success with the Los Angles Rams wasn’t a fluke, that his sack numbers in 2019 will be a consistent achievement. He has said he considers last year to be his rookie year, as he finally earned a full-season starting spot for the Rams and put up numbers that he believes his status as a first-round draft pick (with Jacksonville in 2015) warranted. He knows he has to stay on par, however, as this season creeps closer. And there’s a little extra motivation there for him, too. “Honestly, if I would have had three more sacks (last year), we would have been talking about it different: a Pro Bowl season, All-Pro type of year,” Fowler said. “But it didn’t happen like that, so I’ve still got some more work to do. I am just going to keep carving my tools and sharpening my knife every day.” Then there’s Tyeler Davison, who is pretty good against the run but needs to do more in terms of disruptive statistics and could be called upon in more ways this season than he has been previously. Can he be the complement Jarrett needs inside? There’s an untested talent like rookie Marlon Davidson, whom the Falcons are looking to play inside more after Davidson transformed his body before his final season at Auburn to be able to play defensive end for the Tigers. Can he make that transition early in Year 1 to be a needed addition? Quinn said he and his coaching staff are anxious to see what Charles Harris does the next few weeks as they play him on the left and right sides. What will those weeks of evaluations look like for Harris, and how will he compare with others? And what of Allen Bailey, Steven Means, Deadrin Senat and John Cominsky? Can any of them emerge to help the defensive line? But back to McKinley, who said he had too many “almost sacks” last year. The key this season is to finish, and maybe that should be the case for everyone as the Falcons’ defense looks to be more disruptive than it was a year ago, especially early. “If I finish, I don’t think nobody would be talking about the Falcons declining Takk’s fifth-year option,” McKinley said. “Finishing. That’s what the game is all about. You gotta finish.” Practice observations and notes • Todd Gurley and Alex Mack did not participate in Saturday’s padded practice. Both were scheduled for another day off to limit their workload and keep them healthy. Also not practicing was Davidson, who also did not practice Thursday. Quinn said Saturday morning that Davidson was working through a knee strain but that it is not serious nor do the coaches think it’s going to be a long-term worry. • Tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk was back in pads and practicing Saturday. He had missed a few practices, wearing a brace on his left knee, but he was working with the second team Saturday. • After releasing offensive lineman Scottie Deal on Friday, the Falcons signed tackle Ka’John Armstrong on Saturday morning. Armstrong was picked up by the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He was cut during training camp and spent a part of last season on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad before moving to Denver to spend the remainder of the 2019 season on the Broncos’ practice squad. • Matt Hennessy received a large chunk of the reps at left guard with the first-team. While James Carpenter was rotated in periodically, it was definitely Hennessy who remained in that spot for the majority of Saturday’s practice. • Brian Hill had another good day. With Gurley resting, Hill was the top option at running back. In a protection drill with the running backs and linebackers, Hill looked textbook in a one-on-one matchup with Foye Oluokun. In the very next drill, when the offensive line was working with the defensive line on its run blocking, coaches praised Hill when he made a cut through a hole. • Hayden Hurst said Tuesday that he really has been trying to use Julio Jones and his knowledge to his own advantage, saying the coolest thing about Jones was how willing he has been to chat with Hurst about various coverages and routes. On Saturday, that budding relationship with the two was easy to see on the sideline. When the second and third teams were making their runs down the field, it was common to see Hurst and Jones having conversations on the side, obviously discussing certain techniques or routes. “Every time I come back to the huddle, I look at him and ask, ‘What did you think on that?’ or if we’re doing routes on air I’m like, ‘Hey, what do you see there?’” Hurst said Tuesday. “I mean why not? Why wouldn’t you pick a Hall of Famer’s brain? It’s cool having a guy like that at our disposal.” • Quinn said Thursday that while Chris Rowland and Brandon Powell would spend the majority of Thursday’s scrimmage as the team’s designated return men, the Falcons were going to try others in those spots. Ito Smith was working with Rowland and Powell during the team’s special-teams circuit early in Saturday’s practice. • After a few days spent recuperating a sore foot, Kendall Sheffield seemed back in full swing. With the Falcons using a few different lineups and combinations of defensive backs to evaluate different players, Sheffield was able to get a lot of reps in that second rotation of the first-team defense. • At one point in practice, the Falcons were playing around with a three-linebacker set with Oluokum, Deion Jones and Mykal Walker in together. Walker has made a number of good impressions in his first training camp, and it would seem the Falcons are trying to get the rookie more involved.
  4. https://theathletic.com/2011434/2020/08/20/its-all-coming-back-keanu-neals-return-and-what-it-means-for-falcons/ As Dan Quinn looked out across the practice field on the first day of training camp, he smiled. Maybe it was a smile at being out on the field amidst so much uncertainty as to whether a season actually could happen in 2020. Maybe it was a smile because the weather in Flowery Branch has been relatively mild the past couple of weeks, without the thick humidity August is known for in Georgia. But follow Quinn closely, and you’ll see that his smile forms when his eyes land on one specific player. Back healthy and in a uniform once more, that player is Keanu Neal. “It makes my heart feel good to see him on the field,” Quinn said. It’s easy to understand why after the injuries that have befallen Neal: an ACL tear in 2018, ending his season just as it began, and then a ruptured Achilles just three games into the 2019 season. We don’t have to dwell on what was because Neal isn’t. He stayed ready for his comeback, through every surgery and every rehab session. Still, on that first day, Quinn had to pull him off to the side. “On the first day I was just so excited for him,” Quinn said. “I said, ‘You really worked your *** off to put yourself back on the field, to put yourself into this spot.’” Neal looks a bit different than he has the past two years. Normally, he has been in the 220-225 weight range. At the start of this year’s camp, however, he’s down to 212. Neal said he’s back closer to his rookie weight. He’s lighter on his feet, too. That, Quinn said, was by design, and it was a decision that Neal is feeling the effects of now that the Falcons have started ramping up their live scrimmage reps. “I slimmed down for a reason, just so I could move better,” Neal said. “It’s been working out really well. I’m moving around a lot better. I’m moving around like myself. I am excited with where I’m at.” Physically, Quinn and those around Neal would say you would never know this is the same player who, in back-to-back years, suffered injuries that have altered many careers singularly, let alone together. In 2020, Neal doesn’t look like an injured player. But there still is a little bit of catching up for Neal to do and do quickly, and he knows that. It isn’t his physical shape that he’s focusing on during the first week of padded practice. But as Quinn said, it’s his “football shape” that Neal is honing in on currently. “When I say that, I’m talking about the eyes, the technique, his run fits,” Quinn said. Like anything, football is habitual. It has its moments that for someone playing the game and in the thick of it every day are things they don’t have to think about. The body acts before the mind has to tell it to. It’s like a musician playing an instrument. If the maestro stops playing for two years, when they finally do pick their instrument back up, it’ll take a few minutes to get the feel of the instrument again and to fall back into practice. After two years working back from his injuries, Neal is picking his instrument back up, and he’s returning to maestro form. “Throughout these first couple of practices I have noticed things where I will be in the play, and it will happen and then afterwards I’ll be like, ‘Dang, I could have done this,'” Neal said. Then, the chords start returning to him, and the melody starts to form again. And now? “Recently, I kind of told myself that I have started to get my groove back,” Neal said with a smile. It’s all coming back to him, he said. He’s starting to see the plays form in front of him. He’s starting to fall back into his habits. And Neal doing so is one of the best things that could happen for the secondary. The question now is as Neal returns back to form, what does that mean for the secondary with players like Damontae Kazee and Ricardo Allen having held things down in Neal’s absence? It’s actually not all that complicated, according to Quinn. The coaches know what strength each player has, and they know the situations in which each player thrives. The focus is on fine-tuning exactly when to bring them together. Allen has the “football smarts,” he’s very effective in specific coverages where there’s a disguise. Kazee has terrific ball skills. He has the ability to break out of the middle of the field and make a play. Neal is a natural in man-to-man coverage. He’s an enforcer, someone the Falcons can have down in the box, disrupting an offense. “So, trying to find the moments to put them in the best spaces, that’s what these next few weeks are about,” Quinn said. “Fortunately for us, those are three guys that really work in concert together well — their communication, their ability on the field. So, it’s been good to have all three of them on the field, and that will be the case for a number of different packages.” The coaches and Neal’s teammates have been waiting for Neal’s return. Now that it’s here, there’s much to discuss about what it means for the safeties, but it seems no one is more excited to figure that out than Neal. “It’s just understanding different roles,” Neal said about his position group. “We are all going to play in different spaces. So, it’s going to be cool and unique to see how they use us this year.” Practice notes and observations • Marlon Davidson, Jamon Brown and Evin Ksiezarczyk did not participate in Thursday’s scrimmage. Quinn announced Wednesday that Brown was in concussion protocol. Davidson and Ksiezarczyk were at practice but were in jerseys and shorts observing. Ksiezarczyk had a brace on his left knee but appeared to be moving around without issue. Davidson also didn’t seem to be in any visible discomfort walking around the sidelines. • Chris Rowland and Brandon Powell got the nod on punt and kickoff returns. Quinn said there will be others rotated in to test in those roles, but Thursday’s scrimmage was specifically blocked off for Rowland and Powell to get the majority of those reps. Also of note, Powell did some good things working out of the slot with the second- and third-team offense. He was targeted a few times and made a couple of nice grabs. • After spending much of Wednesday with the second-team offensive line, Matt Hennessy worked primarily with the first team at left guard on Thursday. James Carpenter and Matt Gono spent much of Thursday with the second-team offense. Carpenter and Hennessy, however, switched teams for the final period of practice, which saw the Falcons working on their end-of-game play with around a minute on the clock. • Brian Hill had a solid morning taking handoffs from Matt Schaub. After a nice run to the outside that set up the lone touchdown of the scrimmage, Hill showed he could be shaping up to be a real No. 2 behind Todd Gurley. Asked about Hill, Quinn said he is “100 percent a guy on a mission.” That showed a bit on Thursday. • John Cominsky got a few more looks with the first-team defensive line, particularly in the final few periods of the scrimmage. Allen Bailey was also someone who was in the rotation a bit more on Thursday. • It was noted Wednesday that even with Alex Mack returning to center after a scheduled day off, Justin McCray was still taking snaps at center. That changed a bit on Thursday as McCray spent much of the day at right guard with the second and third teams. • Mykal Walker continues to turn a few heads during his first training camp. Thursday’s practice ended after Blidi Wreh-Wilson broke up a pass intended for Powell. The ball tipped into the arms of Walker for his second interception of camp. It was a moment that also came off the back of another turnover the defense forced in the end-of-game situation. Prior to Walker’s interception, Calvin Ridley lost the ball after catching a short pass from Matt Ryan, and Foye Oluokun recovered the fumble. It was an exciting end to practice for the defense, particularly for the linebackers.
  5. https://theathletic.com/2005756/2020/08/18/what-hayden-hursts-baseball-background-has-to-do-with-falcons-communication/ When it was announced on Monday that the Falcons would not have fans attending games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium through September, it wasn’t much of a shock to anyone. Many teams across the NFL already had said fans would not be allowed in stadiums to watch games. The Falcons had a plan in place to potentially allow 10,000 to 20,000 fans into games, with PSL and season-ticket holders being sent a survey to fill out ranking which of the first four home games they would most like to attend. But that plan was put on hold as the Falcons’ first two home games against Seattle and Chicago will be held without fans. But on Tuesday, Dan Quinn spoke to the challenge of playing in a stadium without fans, mainly how the ambient noise a crowd provides won’t drown out the verbal cues of the offense. Asked about how this could change an offense’s approach to communication, Quinn said it’s an interesting question with an answer he actually sees ties in elsewhere. “Code words and hand signals — we’ll have to dig deep into our baseball backgrounds,” Quinn said. When Quinn realized that, he went to pick Hayden Hurst’s brain. Hurst was a baseball player before he was the 25th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. In fact, that was the second time Hurst heard his name called in a draft setting. After leading The Bolles School to two state titles and after pitching in the Under Armour High School All-American Game, Hurst was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round of the 2012 MLB Draft, and he reported to Pittsburgh’s Rookie League shortly thereafter. So Hurst knows a thing or two about the non-verbal communication tactics used in baseball. And that’s exactly what Quinn wondered about as his mind started churning with new communication ideas in the wake of the announcement of no fan attendance at games in September. “What are the indicators? How does it work for some of the signals?” Quinn asked. “Because we’re certainly not going to, every week, keep some of the same code words and hand signals.” Because of the situation, Quinn said simply there will be more cat and mouse games played this year than in years prior. When asked about that conversation, Hurst smiled. “He did kind of pick my brain the other day,” Hurst said. “It was a little blast from the past going through the baseball signals like a third-base coach would.” When it comes to those non-verbal cues and the role they could play in games played without fans, the Falcons’ newest tight end said quarterback Matt Ryan is already pretty well-versed in his communication tactics. Hurst said Ryan even keeps the other offensive players on their toes. “You have to keep your head on a swivel because Matt calls out his cadences, calls out his checks pretty quickly, so you have to be in the playbook, be in your iPad and understand what’s going on,” Hurst said. “… Getting with Matt in the offseason was huge, just familiarizing myself with the playbook and understanding how he is going to call the cadence and call things out. That was probably the best thing that I could have done this offseason was hook up with him.” Hurst explained that Ryan can sometimes be verbal, vocalizing his checks and alerts. Other times he’s non-verbal, signaling the same things. Obviously this is an every-quarterback-everywhere type of skill, but perhaps, without fans and much ambient noise, that latter skill could become more prominent this season. In fact, maybe it’s worth it for Hurst to take a trip down memory lane with Quinn to tell tales of his days in the Pirates’ organization. This season, there may be more of a need to lean more heavily on a sign sequence like that of a third-base coach to a batter or even a catcher to a pitcher. But baseball wasn’t the only callback Hurst made when speaking to the media on Tuesday morning. He also referred to his college days at South Carolina when referencing the scheme Atlanta uses offensively. He said it’s less like Baltimore’s — truth be told it’s “totally different” — and more like South Carolina’s, the program where he walked on in 2015 after storing away his baseball glove. Baltimore’s offense revolves around Lamar Jackson. It’s a run-heavy system, with Hurst saying the Ravens’ offense is really good at power-and-gap schemes, moving players and reducing defenders through gaps. With an offense centered around players like Julio Jones, Atlanta’s offense is much different. “I think it is exactly what I was doing in college,” Hurst said. “I am pretty **** excited about it.” The excitement Hurst feels about being in Atlanta’s offense radiates off him. It’s an energy others have commented about before Hurst even got the chance to during the third week of training camp. He’s excited because, strictly from a scheme standpoint, everything starts outside. Hurst said Jones is going to be “a first-ballot Hall of Famer” who gets a lot of attention from safety help over the top while Calvin Ridley is going to continue to “do his thing.” “It opens up the defense for me. If I can use my speed and athleticism, then I am definitely going to get open on linebackers and be physical with safeties. There’s going to be a lot of singled up stuff for me,” Hurst said. In another sense, because of how quick, how vertical Hurst plays for a tight end, he believes he can draw attention to himself. In fact, that was something Hurst and Jones noted out on the field at practice Tuesday, just how much Hurst could free up Jones. And if the Falcons give defenses no choice by featuring Hurst, it could be a situation that works in the offense’s favor. Regardless, Hurst feels he’s exactly where he needs to be, especially with Quinn picking his brain about his baseball roots. “I just have to keep doing my job,” Hurst said, “because I think there’s going to be a lot of balls coming my way.” Practice observations and notes • Todd Gurley and Alex Mack were not dressed out in helmets and pads for the first day of padded practice. They were on the field but did not participate in any drills or scrimmage situations. Brian Hill and Justin McCray took the majority of snaps in their place. It was a scheduled off day for Gurley and Mack. • Jamal Carter was activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list. This means the Falcons now have 80 players on their active roster, with no players currently listed on the reserve/COVID-19 list for the first time since the start of training camp. • Kendall Sheffield was limited in practice last week with what Quinn called a sore foot. Sheffield started working in drills on Tuesday, and Quinn said, “He’ll ramp back up over the next few days” of practices. • The Falcons’ rookies are doing some good things early in camp with fourth-round pick Mykal Walker picking off a tipped pass from Matt Schaub in practice Tuesday. First-rounder A.J. Terrell continued to show he may be a good fit in the starting lineup in the secondary as he broke up a few more passes after pulling down an interception last week. • Quinn said before practice began that “the padded days have always been devoted to the big guys,” meaning now that the pads are on, the coaches can get a much clearer sense of what they have to work with at the line of scrimmage. One of the biggest questions this staff has to answer in that area is at left guard, and the battle for that position will be one to keep an eye on as practices move forward. Both Matt Gono and James Carpenter were rotated in with the first group Tuesday.
  6. https://theathletic.com/1989140/2020/08/11/twenty-for-2020-ranking-the-falcons-most-important-impactful-players-part-i/?source=dailyemail Editor’s note: Part I of this ranking includes pick Nos. 20-11. Part II will publish Wednesday with the second half (Nos. 10-1) of the list. The Falcons are entering a season in which the team expects to do more, be more. And the Falcons will need to, as questions remain after a lackluster 2019, especially after a 1-7 start. With training camp well on its way, let’s take a look at 20 players whose increased impact from 2019 to 2020 could be the difference-maker for Atlanta as it heads into a year that has many must-wins on the docket. Without further ado, let’s dive in. 20. Darqueze Dennard Notable point of 2019: Dennard’s three-year, $13.5 million deal with Jacksonville fell through. Talking to the media on Friday, coach Dan Quinn finally had the chance to discuss the newest addition to his secondary after the Falcons picked up Dennard as a free agent last week. It’s thought that Dennard will fit into a starting role almost seamlessly, but the Falcons are trying to figure out how best to use him. “The fact that he’s played nickel, that’s been a big help for us, but he’s made his living playing outside,” Quinn said. He went on to say the Falcons likely will need a few weeks to make sure they have Dennard in the right space to be successful. It will be a time of trial and error as the Falcons move Dennard inside and outside, but expect Dennard’s role to look a lot clearer by the end of the month. ATL - CB Darqueze Dennard 2019 STATS TKLS 37.0 93rd TFL 2 29th PASSES DEF 5 81st 19. Isaiah Oliver Notable point of 2019: The changes Oliver made halfway through the season when the coaching staff was shaken up. Oliver’s trajectory in 2019 followed that of the team, particularly the defense. Simply put, he got better as the year went on, and the further away the team got from that 1-7 start, the better Oliver looked. The issues Oliver was having early in 2019 were technical, the connection between his feet and hands lacking. Statistically, that lack of crispness in technique showed, as he allowed 30 receptions for 427 yards and three touchdowns through that eight-game stretch in which the Falcons won only one game. After Joe Whitt joined the staff, Oliver saw major improvements, as Whitt looked specifically to work on that technique. With the technical blunders behind Oliver, 2020 is the time to see him be more disruptive in his third year in the league. He has had just one interception during his two seasons, and for the defense to be more formidable, that number has to rise. And with a more settled-in Oliver, perhaps it can. ATL - CB Isaiah Oliver 2019 STATS TKLS 62.0 17th PASSES DEF 11 22nd FF 1 14th 18. Tyeler Davison Notable point of 2019: Only two quarterback hits and one sack throughout the season. The struggles the Falcons had getting to the quarterback in 2019 are well documented, and that falls on the shoulders of the defensive line. Davison was solid against the run in 2019, but expecting more production out of the veteran in those disruptive categories of a defense is a likely progression. It also seems as though Davison’s influence could impact a player such as Grady Jarrett. With Jarrett having a season last year that garnered him more respect as an undersized defensive tackle, how successful can he be when teams seek out ways to stifle him? That’s where Davison comes in. The better Davison is at keeping an offensive line unbalanced, the more it frees up Jarrett. The Falcons need the two working simultaneously to be in peak form. ATL - DT Tyeler Davison 2019 STATS TKLS 58.0 15th TFL 3 123rd SACKS 1.0 142nd 17. Keanu Neal Notable point of 2019: There wasn’t one, and that’s the problem. You just want to see Neal healthy again. That’s it. Now in the final year of his contract, it was clear what he could do for the secondary when he signed it, but a different Neal emerges in 2020 after the significant injuries he has sustained. His absence left a gaping hole in the secondary, one the Falcons have been working to fill for two years. It allowed for the rise of Ricardo Allen, but one could never quite shake the feeling of wondering how good the secondary could be with Neal in it. Having both available in 2020 would mean good things for the Falcons. If anything, it would mean that the secondary finally feels complete. The defense as a whole looked better as the 2019 season went on, so how would that trajectory continue to rise with Neal back in the fold? That’s the question a healthy Neal would provide the answer to. And if there’s no drop-off from two seasons on the injured reserve, it’s easy to think the answer would be a good one. 16. A.J. Terrell Notable point of 2019: A large contingent of Falcons fans didn’t want Terrell as the first-round pick in the draft. Maybe that sets up Terrell as an underdog with something to prove. That label can make someone dangerous. Quinn said just last week that the more you’re around Terrell, the more you start to see traits that stand out, particularly his dedication and willpower to improve. Everyone likes to think they’re a hard worker, but Quinn said with Terrell, you really feel that drive — a competitive fire, as Quinn called it. “Let’s face it: To come in and play corner not only in our division but in the NFL early on, you better have your game right and the competitive part altogether,” Quinn said. “He has all of those things, so that’s the thing that stands apart to me because physically he’s certainly able to, and now putting all the whole thing together, that competitiveness that he has. He is just kind of down for fighting, especially at the line of scrimmage, and that’s certainly something that I know is a part of his game.” With potential starting spots up for grabs, time will tell just how far Terrell can go with that fire in his rookie year. 15. Takk McKinley Notable point of 2019: The Falcons declined his fifth-year option for 2021. Picking up Dante Fowler Jr. this offseason to assist in the pass rush was an important step the Falcons needed to take for a notable change in that area following the 2019 season. But what also needs notable change is McKinley’s role. Ideally, McKinley would provide the Falcons with more pressure as he works opposite of Fowler. Numbers that look closer to those of McKinley’s rookie year or second year would be a good goal. Even starting five more games from his second year to his third, McKinley’s total tackles didn’t differ too much, and his sack count dropped from seven in 2018 to just 3 1/2 last year. If things are to stick for McKinley in Atlanta, he needs 2020 to be a year when the defense can’t see success without him, and so far that hasn’t been the case. ATL - DE Takkarist McKinley 2019 STATS TKLS 30.0 87th TFL 7 54th SACKS 3.5 69th 14. Kaleb McGary Notable point of 2019: McGary started 16 games, and the Falcons stuck with him through some early learning curves. He’ll be better for it. McGary needed reps and time. For better or for worse, he got that in 2019 in his rookie season. At times, he looked like the rookie he was, but history has shown that when it comes to linemen, the first year can be the toughest. And it probably would be a safe bet that the McGary who shows up in his second year will look more polished and knowledgable. Also, as Jeff Schultz wrote in our 53-man projection roundtable, it’s difficult to know the cause of McGary’s early struggles: the learning curve of a rookie season or the offensive line’s issues as a whole. Either way, more stability lies in both notions, and that could mean good things for McGary. 13. Foye Oluokun Notable point of 2019: De’Vondre Campbell left Atlanta as a free agent. This leaves the door wide open for Oluokun. As a former safety at Yale, Oluokun had some adjusting, rearranging and learning to do in his first couple of seasons in the league. Now established at linebacker, the first name to roll off the tongue when referring to Campbell’s replacement was Oluokun, who is ready to take the next step to stand side by side with Deion Jones. When Jones was hurt in Oluokun’s rookie season, Oluokun stepped up to fill the void. Now, he’ll work to lead in his own right. The Falcons can hope Oluokun will start the 2020 season in much the same way he finished the 2019 season. Like many of the defensive players on this list, Oluokun shined brighter the longer the season burned on. In fact, 80 percent of his season total in tackles came in the final eight games. The expectation for Oluokun to fill the void left by Campbell is there, but the question is whether he will. Truth be told, it should be expected as part of his natural progression. ATL - ILB Foyesade Oluokun 2019 STATS TKLS 62.0 67th TFL 2 133rd FF 1 37th 12. Chris Lindstrom Notable point of 2019: A broken foot left the rookie sidelined for much of his first season in 2019. Healthy again, could Lindstrom be an important key in the offensive line’s search for more consistency? Just last week, NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger broke down a quick clip of Lindstrom playing against the San Francisco 49ers last season, saying simply in a short video uploaded to Twitter, “What a difference Lindstrom made for this offense.” Indeed, Lindstrom was able to be a big helping hand for Atlanta during the final weeks of the season. With McGary at tackle and Alex Mack at center, Lindstrom fit nicely between the two and seemed to help McGary more and more as each week passed. In the run game, those final four games saw Devonta Freeman have two of his highest yards-per-attempt averages for the season, with five of the first seven games seeing Freeman’s average drop below 3.0 yards per carry. That’s not to say Lindstrom’s inclusion on the offensive line changed everything for Freeman and the Falcons’ run game, but looking back at the film, it definitely didn’t hurt to have Linstrom beside McGary. Lindstrom enters his second season hungry for more chances like those. It will be interesting to see Lindstrom’s impact if he’s able to go full time with the offensive line. 11. Ricardo Allen Notable point of 2019: In yet another year without Neal, it was Allen who kept the secondary afloat. Allen has taken a leadership role at practices as of late. Without coaches at the strength and conditioning periods, it’s Allen the group looks to for structure, cues and to set the pace. It’s a title he feels as though he has earned. “We always talk about setting a standard, and that standard may look different for everybody, but being someone who’s been around, and I’m someone I feel like has worked from the bottom, and I scraped for everything I got, I feel like I have a lot to offer,” Allen said. But he also noted that there’s something to be said about the sense of urgency the entire defense feels heading into 2020. Allen was one of Atlanta’s top tacklers last year with 85 combined tackles, averaging around five per game. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t being pushed. He said when there’s as much competition as there is in the secondary right now, everyone’s level of play has to naturally go up. As the final name before getting to the top 10 on this list on Wednesday, Allen’s impact is representative of a player who waited for his turn to thrive. Now, he’s the one the group looks to. ATL - FS Ricardo Allen 2019 STATS TKLS 84.0 16th TFL 5 11th INTS 2 16th
  7. https://theathletic.com/1994663/2020/08/13/falcons-focused-on-their-responsibilities-on-and-off-the-field-during-pandemic/ A small chuckle escaped from behind Grady Jarrett’s mask during his first media availability last week. He was asked what his plans were to build a bubble around himself during training camp as the Falcons — and the rest of the NFL — get back to work on the field. There seems to be merit in what leagues like the NBA are doing amid the pandemic, enacting a bubble of sorts around the league and strictly monitoring who is allowed in and out of that bubble. The NFL doesn’t have that luxury. So, the responsibility falls to each player to put a bubble around himself as training camp gets underway. It was a noted responsibility that Dan Quinn spoke about when he opened training camp last week. He said he was on a video call earlier that day with the rookies, and he called on them to be “the best teammate they’ve ever been.” “Because we’re not only trying to take care of one another, but we’re looking after your families, too,” Quinn said. “We’ve got to make the best decisions off the field.” When Jarrett was about taking individual responsibility to not see anyone outside of practices, his answer was a little different than Quinn’s. Again, Jarrett chuckled. “I might be by myself most of the time anyways, so it’s not going to be big for me. I’m kind of enjoying it,” he said as another chuckle escaped. “It gives me another excuse to say I can’t go out or do anything if I’m invited somewhere, so I’m enjoying it, and I think it might even help me be a better player.” Finally, being an introvert is starting to pay off. And as the week moved on and a new one began, more Falcons players expressed similar sentiments, joking that they don’t see anyone anyway so nothing has really changed. By the time Julio Jones took to the Microsoft Teams airwaves Thursday, he was singing the same tune. “There was really nothing out of the ordinary for me because I work out by myself, and I kind of just do my job,” Jones said. “… For myself, I go home to the same people. I’m away from everybody. “I’m here to just do my job.” Asked about his thoughts regarding what is happening in college football, Jones said he gets it. He’s a professional. The players around him at training camp are, too. They’re taking on the responsibility that was assigned to them, but Jones said he sees how complying with the same rules is much more difficult for college student-athletes. They have classes to go to and dining halls to eat in. Many of them are in college towns surrounded by thousands of other students their age. When they go home, they likely are not going home to their families. Their “home” is a dorm room or an apartment complex. “Especially kids, when you are 18, 19 years old, it’s hard to be away from this person, be away from that person,” Jones said. “Here, we have our families that we can go home to and make sure everybody is staying with the same people, whereas when you are in college you don’t know where somebody is going. It’s too much of a risk, and the team is way, way bigger as far as on a college level than an NFL level.” On Wednesday, Quinn was asked about the ripple effects the cancellation of certain college conferences’ seasons would have on the NFL as it moves toward another draft year. First and foremost, Quinn said, his heart went out to those players and coaches who had been putting in the work since getting the go-ahead to practice again. “I really thought about the players,” Quinn said. “They’re going to need their coaches’ help more than they ever have.” But when asked about the effect on the NFL, Quinn said he just doesn’t know. There are too many hypotheticals. And, really, the here and now for the Falcons’ 2020 season has enough trouble on its own. That brings us to the second week of training camp. Strength-and-conditioning periods have now morphed into full practice time. Helmets are on, and there are many evaluations the coaching staff has to make during the next few weeks without any preseason games to go off of before Week 1. Quinn said it will be up to the staff to create competitive, unscripted moments in practices to replace the live reps players would have had in preseason games. But how significant are those preseason games in getting ready to play in September? Veterans are split on the question. Matt Ryan said, there are positives and negative drawbacks to this unique preseason, but because the Falcons have so much continuity from last year to this year, he said he doesn’t see it as a big issue. Plus, they’ve done this before. “We all did this in college,” Ryan said. “(We) got ourselves ready for the season and went out and played Week 1 without any preseason games, so we’ll be all right. We will get ourselves ready, and I think Dan has a really good plan, too, to try and mimic some of what we would normally do during the preseason.” He did add, however, that he likes having preseason games. They help knock the rust off, he said. When asked about the effect this could have on the new players coming in, Foye Oluokun looked back at his own journey as the 200th pick in the 2018 draft. If these unprecedented circumstances had happened during his rookie year, he said, it would have been “difficult” to come in and stand out right away. “I definitely felt for them, especially those undrafted free agents because I view myself as an undrafted free agent just coming out of a small school, and I don’t know how much film they really watched on me, so everything I did I had to prove to them,” Oluokun said. “But I had from April (to show what I could do). I was drafted on April 28th, something like that, and as soon as I got drafted it was maybe a week, and I was back in this facility doing rookie training camp. So, going through the circumstances they do now, they weren’t able to get as many eyes on them, so every little thing they do is important because one thing that I realized early was that everything you do is evaluated as a rookie or even as a vet. They’re always watching you.” That evaluation process, if possible, only intensifies as the preseason morphs into player-vs.-player dynamics, instead of Falcons-vs.-opponent games. Jones brings it full circle. When asked about creating a bubble around himself, he said it clearly: He has a job to do, and not seeing anyone outside of his own family is a part of that job. The same can be said for his feelings about preseason games. While he didn’t have any injuries to work through this offseason, he said he’s ready to play whenever. “I’m conditioned for this, helmet on or helmet off,” Jones said. “I can go out there and play that first game without practice or anything. I can do it. It doesn’t matter. You have to be a professional at the end of the day.” A professional with introverted tendencies, perhaps, but a professional nonetheless.
  8. https://theathletic.com/1974546/2020/08/04/dante-fowler-jr-ready-to-meet-expectations-with-intensity-in-2020/ It was 2012 when Dante Fowler Jr. and Todd Gurley faced each other on a football field for the first time. Not yet pros and still a couple of years away from entering the NFL Draft conversation, Fowler and Gurley were gearing up for the annual Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, Fla., as freshmen just looking for something to prove. Fowler remembers that first game against his now friend quite clearly. He remembers it because Gurley racked up 118 rushing yards. Or as Fowler put it, “He literally ran all over us.” The next year, Fowler was starting for the Gators and stood in the way of any success Gurley garnered that day. “I didn’t take it easily what he did to us the last year,” Fowler remembered feeling. “So, I was on him super hard.” Fowler had six tackles that day. He said one of them actually ended in a heated moment with Gurley, which makes sense considering Gurley caught a 73-yard touchdown pass and was well on his way to another 100-yard day on the ground, too. He had been a thorn in the Gators’ side for two years now. “We kind of got into a little scuffle in a pile-up,” Fowler said with a laugh. “I had tackled him, and we were fighting a little bit.” Fast forward to 2020, and the two can’t say enough good things about each other. “I’m smiling behind this mask because that’s my guy …” Gurley said during his media availability Monday (the same day that he shares a birthday with Fowler, funny enough). “He has always been a good teammate, always been a good guy and a great competitor, too.” Some 24 hours later, Fowler spoke to his relationship with Gurley relaying memories of Georgia-Florida days past (note: Fowler will call it Florida-Georgia whereas Gurley calls it Georgia-Florida, and if you have any familiarity with the rivalry, you know why). Fowler said he has come up through football with Gurley. They were in the same draft class. They’ve been teammates with the Los Angeles Rams, and now they’re together once more after being picked up by the Falcons this offseason. He said simply, “It’s crazy how the world works.” Truth be told, the Falcons needed them together again in 2020 and need a lot out of them individually: specifically, more rushing yards from Gurley and 2019’s sack count from Fowler. Rushing yards and sacks were areas the Falcons significantly lacked last year having Devonta Freeman only average 3.6 yards per rush and the defense earning just the second-fewest sacks in the NFL. While the Falcons are still figuring out Gurley’s workload this training camp, the same time period for Fowler will be spent going full speed. In fact, the defensive end said things have been moving at an incredibly fast pace the past few days as the team is finally able to get off Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls and out on the field. “They are kind of drilling on us, putting the pressure on us to really know everything because we have to be on top of our stuff,” Fowler said. “We don’t have time to try to teach everything because that’s stuff we’ve already been through in virtual meetings. Now that we’re here we will probably do a virtual meeting the night before, and then that next day, we are going to walk right through at 8 o’clock in the morning.” Time is of the essence right now for Fowler and the defense. The good news for Fowler is that the Falcons’ staff has a clear plan laid out for him. There were some who assumed Fowler’s role with the Falcons would look similar to the way Jacksonville used him, but Fowler said the Falcons are planning to use him more in the ways Los Angeles did. “They let me stand up and put my hand in the dirt,” Fowler said of his time with the Rams. “In Jacksonville, I just had my hand in the dirt the whole time. So, I’ll be able to stand up, move around sometimes, but they’ll also let me put my hand in the dirt and pin my ears back.” Fowler seems to prefer that style of play. He said by allowing him to play that way, the Rams’ coaching staff put him in the right situations to thrive. “They weren’t stubborn; whatever they could do to get sacks and make the team better, that’s what they did,” he said. And Fowler likely would be the first to say he blossomed last year as he was really able to dig his feet in for the first time as a pro. He led the Rams with 11.5 sacks, and his 19 tackles for loss were nothing to ignore. It was the first time many felt he lived up to his first-round draft pick status. And maybe even Fowler would agree. After five years in the league, Fowler joked that he likes to say last year was actually his rookie year since it was his first year as a starter, wiping away his first couple of years in the league. He’s not naive to the fact that those early years didn’t go as planned. But as he looks back, he explains if he was going to have setbacks, he would rather have them happen early because he has been able to grow from them. “I’m ready to be a pro for another 10 years,” he said. The expectation for Fowler has always been high, and he finally reached those heights in 2019. As 2020’s season draws near, there’s a new set of expectations for Fowler: mainly that he repeats the success he had in 2019. This uptick in sacks and pass rush ability is something the Falcons need, and it’s something they spent good money on Fowler to get. He said he still has work to do, trying to sharpen his knife every day, but as he looks ahead to 2020, maybe he looks at it in the same way he looked at that 2013 Georgia-Florida game against Gurley — with a little more intensity. “I feel good,” Fowler said. “I know what my expectations are. I know what I’m going to do. I’m ready to ride with my boys.” One of those boys just happens to be Gurley, again.
  9. https://theathletic.com/1972022/2020/08/03/todd-gurley-is-not-rushing-through-the-early-days-of-training-camp/ It might be a tad bit ironic that in the midst of a pandemic Todd Gurley’s birthday looks fairly similar to the way it always has. As the first Falcons player made available to the media following the team’s first practice Monday, Gurley was asked about six questions via a Microsoft Teams video chat before calling everyone on the call out for their lack of birthday spirit. “First of all, none of y’all have told me happy birthday yet, so I’m kinda upset with you guys,” Gurley joked. “We may be done with this interview right now.” We weren’t. Gurley answered about six more questions after that. Some media members even volunteered to sing “Happy Birthday” to the running back at the end of the call. That didn’t happen either, and that was probably for the best. We write and speak for a living. There’s a reason we aren’t paid to sing. No one wants to hear that rendition of “Happy Birthday.” But in a year in which nothing seems normal, Gurley’s birthday was. Gurley said having a birthday on Aug. 3 usually means he spends his day on a football field. Since his high school days, a practice or workout of sorts has been on the schedule for that day. Maybe that’s why he felt particularly grateful to have a practice schedule for his 26th birthday. Something finally dripped with a little bit of normalcy while everything up to this point has been saturated with change and adjustments. “A lot of people want to die to play this game so for me to be 26, and it (to) be my sixth year in the league and still get an opportunity to play running back, do something I love, do something I’ve always done, I’m always appreciative and grateful,” Gurley said. “There ain’t no better way to come back than on my birthday and be able to go back to work, having a new team, new teammates, new everything, so it’s pretty cool.” The past year for Gurley has been quite the ride as he worked through his yearly recovery process and got picked up by the Falcons. In recent weeks, he has become a source in relaying players’ feelings about playing during the pandemic. Gurley has been outspoken about his thoughts and feelings toward the league and its COVID-19 policies and procedures, wanting to make sure the players’ concerns are heard. There’s a lot of negativity that could have been swirling in his mind, but Gurley said his one positive motivation through it all was to just get back out on the field if and when he was able to. “A lot of guys would be down right now if we didn’t have a chance to play football or go out there and try to do camp because that’s kind of how we’ve always been,” Gurley said. “We’ve had a schedule our whole life, and knowing you have a job, but not being sure that it’s going to actually happen, it gets the best of people so I feel like I’ve been handling it pretty well, just staying positive.” Some of that positivity stems from the situation at hand with the Falcons with Gurley saying he could tell right away the environment was similar to the one he left with the Los Angeles Rams. He said in this business one thing can always be said about coaches: If players don’t like them, new players find that out early. In the case of Dan Quinn, Gurley said he hasn’t heard a bad word spoken about him yet. “I didn’t really have to meet him or talk to him too much to kind of already get a gist of who he is,” Gurley said. On his own call last week, Quinn said he was especially looking forward to getting to know his new running back. Quinn said Gurley was in “fantastic shape” both from a physical and mental standpoint and had a good grasp of the offense already. What Quinn was unsure about at the time, however, was Gurley’s preseason workload. He likened Gurley to Julio Jones, saying Gurley is no different than Jones in regards to making sure they are only taking the best reps, the ones they absolutely have to have. But Quinn also added that it’s not a one size fits all type of plan. “For me getting to know Todd, I’ll have a better sense after the next few weeks of us together,” Quinn said. “What’s the right amount (of reps)? How many back-to-backs? All those things we’ll take into consideration, but (we have) no process together on that yet until we spend some time together.” It’s not a process the Falcons are willing to rush. It’s not one Gurley is either. Monday’s practice was almost like the first day of a new job (which technically, it was, although his office is a bit greener than the rest of ours). It may have been his birthday, but that’s not the reason he’s not looking ahead to the season just yet. There’s a lot to do before then, and who knows what tomorrow will bring? It seems every day during this pandemic brings something new. “I just focus on the day, man,” Gurley said. “Today is Day No. 1. I’m not worried about February. I’m not worried about September. I’m just focused on getting adjusted, getting to know my new teammates, learning about everybody, the whole staff on the Falcons and then just taking it day by day. I don’t look too far in the future. I live for the day and prepare for tomorrow.”
  10. https://theathletic.com/1960547/2020/07/29/what-the-falcons-rookies-have-been-up-to-where-theyre-going-as-camp-begins/?source=dailyemail If you’ve been a college student within the past five years or so, or you have a college student in your home, you are likely familiar with Kahoot. If you are not familiar with the term, don’t worry; it has no foundation in any college drinking game (that I know of). What it is, however, is an online classroom of sorts that allows professors to create customized quizzes that everyone in a class can connect to for some game-based learning. Essentially, students connect via a link to the quiz from their phones or computers. Quizzes normally are timed, and students have a few seconds to read a question and choose a multiple choice answer. The answers are compiled by the service and displayed via a bar graph depicting how many students chose each answer. It’s a simple tool used by teachers everywhere. Some of the Falcons’ rookies may have thought their Kahoot days were behind them when they left their respective universities not too long ago, but the pandemic changed that as everything went remote, including the start of their professional football careers. The past few months have seen the cancellation or rearrangements of important steps rookies normally take in their first few months after the NFL Draft. In 2020, there were no mini-camps, no chances for coaches to see their new crop of players play full speed. Instead, the players were on calls learning the ins and outs of their new organizations and taking Kahoot quizzes. These video call sessions were tailored to each individual player. There was a lot of film watching, players and coaches going back and picking apart the players’ college tape. These weren’t long lectures; instead resembling 25- to 30-minute Q&A periods or film breakdowns followed by a short break and then back at it again. In his first news conference of the training camp season, Falcons coach Dan Quinn likened these rookies’ summer experiences to what the players faced in college. “They’ve been in a football class for a few months,” he said. “Now, here we are at the end of the semester, and now we are able to see what they can do.” No more Kahoot quizzes. Testing season has arrived with training camp. “We’ve done a lot of teaching,” Quinn said of the past few months. “This will be the first time moving forward that we’ll have to do some of the corrections from practice, and those are moments that you like to be in-person for so you can make some eye contact.” Falcons' 2020 draft class Up to this point, no rookie or coach in the league has had that luxury, which is why there is a lot of added stress to this year’s training camp period for these first-year players. There’s already a thought circling that 2020 is the year of the veterans because of everything stacked against rookies entering the league in the midst of a pandemic that has reshaped their first few months as pros. Even while acknowledging that notion, Quinn said he has been impressed with the background knowledge this group came in with, stating he really wanted to test these players to see exactly where they are entering training camp. He said mentally, they passed their first couple of days. But the focus now shifts from what they know to what they can do. “Now, the reaction times are the things that you haven’t had a chance to see, how quickly a player can break on a ball, how quickly they can transition and diagnose plays,” Quinn said. “It’s one thing to understand the concepts. And it’s a whole other thing to go into the format.” Doing those evaluations through practices without having preseason games or exhibitions to lean on prior to the season starting does have its added challenges for players and coaches. Quinn said he recently went back through in his mind and asked himself: “What is the typical amount of reps a rookie might have played in the preseason through the years?” The Falcons had been in talks to schedule joint practices with Buffalo and Miami during the 2020 preseason, but with those no longer available, Quinn said his goal was to give these rookies a similar number of reps that they would have gotten by that time. Those reps just have to be manufactured now where they would have happened organically before. And while there is stress on the coaching staff to be able to do that, there’s even more stress on the rookies to take these very limited chances and make them count. “It’s also a stressor for the player, too, especially the player fighting for a roster spot, you know, ‘When are my moments to prove myself? To show what I can do?'” Quinn said. “So, put yourself into that spot, as well, not just us evaluating but the stress on them. “So, we’re going to try to create some moments that are situation-specific, that will be non-scripted. We’ll do the very best we can to create a game-like situation, a scrimmage so to speak. And we’ll do as many of those leading up to the season as we can. So, that’s the first step to it — to provide moments where 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.” Just like those Kahoot quizzes, time is ticking. While Quinn knows this window of evaluation is a lot smaller than in years past, he said he’s not going to rush through it. “You’re not going to come in and go zero to 120 on the first day,” Quinn said. “We’re going to make sure it’s like climbing a ladder, you don’t skip the rungs as you’re going. Let’s make sure we hit the steps. We need to be at our best moving forward when the season goes, not on Monday, and there’s a lot of work that will go into that.”
  11. https://theathletic.com/1958278/2020/07/28/dan-quinn-breaks-down-policies-and-procedures-as-falcons-return-to-work/ On a video call Tuesday morning, Falcons coach Dan Quinn joked with the 2020 rookies that they weren’t even born when driving laws didn’t mandate seat belts be worn at all times like they are today. “When I was a kid,” Quinn said, “you were climbing from the front to the back, you didn’t need a seat belt. But now, you wouldn’t even think about going anywhere without a seat belt. “Wearing a mask? That’s our seat belt.” Tuesday marked the official return of the final wave of veteran players to the Falcons’ practice facility in Flowery Branch to get its first of two COVID-19 tests done before strength and conditioning workouts begin next week (players being tested must be negative for two tests before being allowed entrance into the facility). Rookies, quarterbacks, injured players and coaches were all tested last week, and the rookies began walkthroughs with the staff on Monday and Tuesday. But Tuesday afternoon, the Falcons announced rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The organization is not permitted to comment on a player’s medical status and may not disclose whether a player on the list is in quarantine or has tested positive for COVID-19. Quinn spoke Tuesday afternoon before the news about Hawkins was released and broke down some of the protocols that have been set in place for the start of training camp. Logistics for better social distancing practices In a quick note, Quinn joked that the past few days have almost felt like moving old furniture into a new house as the staff works to figure out the best way to socially distance during in-person meetings throughout the next few weeks of training camp. With some meetings now moving to a face-to-face setting instead of via Zoom or Microsoft Teams video calls, various position groups had to move out of their original meeting rooms to places with more space. For example, the offensive line will meet in the team’s draft room while wide receivers will meet in the team room. “The position groups that had more players, you needed bigger spaces to do that,” Quinn said. He said scheduled full team meetings will be held in the indoor practice facility. “I think (it will be) like a clinic setting where we have some chairs out and do it in the indoor field,” Quinn said. “That way we will put a screen up there and do some of it that way.” How practices change with no preseason games and exhibitions Quinn said he had not had any conversations with players about opting out of the 2020 season, so with that in mind, he and his staff will have a slew of decisions to make regarding roster construction once training camp begins. Without preseason games and exhibitions, Quinn said there will be changes to the way the coaching staff and players attack training camp and the way coaches evaluate the players. He explained that with preseason games coaches get to see the unscripted moments, a luxury teams do not have this year after the NFL canceled preseason games. The staff is going to have to replicate that as much as it can in practices and scrimmages so it can get the full picture of a players’ potential. “Those scrimmage days, I think, are going to be an important part of the evaluation because that’s the very best that we can do at the moment,” Quinn said. “We’re gonna try and create those opportunities and moments to let those players do their thing and get a real chance to evaluate.” Quinn said these will be meticulously planned moments to evaluate specific players because those will be the only chances this staff will see players against players. They will be player-specific matchups, so coaches can answer the question of what happens, for example, when a running back faces off with a linebacker. “We’ll do a little setup. Let’s put runners on second and third and put the guy at the plate at practice, so to speak,” he said. Questions regarding roster construction In a memo sent to clubs obtained by The Athletic, teams may begin training camp with 90 players on their active list as has been the rule in years past. But if they so choose to keep 90 players, they must split the team into two groups: rookie and first-year players in one group and veterans in another. Clubs must reduce that number to 80 on or before Aug. 16. If a team chooses to reduce its roster to 80 before Aug. 16, players can practice together. When asked about this new rule, Quinn said this is a decision the Falcons are weighing. “If you split, there’s a good chance your rookie players wouldn’t know a veteran player because they wouldn’t be there together,” Quinn said. “So, how quickly do you want to act on that, (adding someone like) A.J. (Terrell) and Marlon (Davidson) to the group?” Where the hole in protocols can be found Quinn said he felt that when the players are at the facility that time will be the safest part of their day. The players know the people they are around, they know everyone in the building has received two negative tests, and they know there are protocols and guidelines everyone must follow. He said it’s not a perfect situation, but having safety protocols in place is something that can’t be said for everywhere these players can go once they leave the facility. That is where the questions arise because without a bubble protocol like in the NBA, MLS, NHL or WNBA, it falls on the players to make a conscious decision to limit their circle. “It’s been helpful to know that there’s lots of space, lots of testing, lots of protocols, meals separated. Coming in, you just have to follow the rules. You know, you put your mask on and follow the rules, and everything kind of takes care of itself,” Quinn said. “Away is where I think it’ll feel different.” And this leads to an important note Quinn had for the team during this time … “Be the best teammate you’ve ever been” There is a certain responsibility every player and coach have to one another now that training camp is set to begin. Quinn said that he has learned the past few months that you can do all of the right things, take all of the right steps and still have a positive test. The team has protocols in place and should be ready for when that moment comes, but it’s important everyone is on the same page in the meantime. And that page is everyone being disciplined even when the players and coaches leave the facilities. “A lot of us are going to have to be the best teammates we have ever been because we’re not only trying to take care of one another but we’re looking after our families, too,” Quinn said. “We’ve got to make the best decisions off the field.”
  12. New Falcons beat writer for The Athletic https://theathletic.com/1944948/2020/07/22/how-the-falcons-are-planning-for-limited-seating-at-games-in-2020/?source=emp_shared_article Don Rovak said when his family of four goes to Falcons games during the season, it can be split into two demographics of game-goers. His sons, who are 12 and 14 years old, like their space. “Usually the biggest gripe for them is someone tall sitting in front of them,” said Rovak, who is the vice president of ticket sales and services for the Falcons. But his wife falls into another category. Like many others, games are social events for her. She’s there to have a drink with some friends or to chat up a stranger or two. It’s a chance to get to know more people, to high-five the person sitting next to her in the excitement of the moment. Rovak said if he were to take her to a game in 2020, it probably wouldn’t be a fun experience for her as it had been in the past. Simply speaking, all the things that draw her to a game, “that’s not going to exist,” Rovak said. As of the third full week in July, Rovak, his team and all of the Falcons’ organization are planning on having limited capacity seating during the season. It’s important to note that this is the plan right now. During a pandemic, time has had a way of changing plans, so the Falcons’ plan very well could change at any point prior to the season starting or even once it does. But the Falcons are hopeful they’re doing right by fans with the plan they have currently set up. Last week, an outline of that plan was sent to Falcons’ PSL and season ticket holders. “I think the big positives are if anybody missed a PSL payment this past year or has an upcoming PSL payment for next year and they want to extend that financial agreement to the backend of their deal they can do so,” Rovak said. “So, basically, we will only be collecting one of the PSL payments over the course of the two years. Another benefit that we communicated was for anybody who is keeping their money on the account and moving their money towards next year, they would get a price freeze for 2021.” He said in a normal year, that would be an average deal, but it could be a bigger deal next year with the NFL expanding to a 17-game regular season with the potential for a ninth home game in 2021. But looking specifically to the 2020 season, Rovak explained the next steps the organization is planning on taking will give the group a better understanding of what it will really be undertaking once the season begins with limited fan seating for games. Beginning on Wednesday, PSL and season ticket holders will receive a survey to fill out regarding their interest in attending the first four home games of the season. If they do wish to attend games, they will rank, in order, their preferences for which games they would like to attend. For reference, the first four home games of the season are against Seattle, Chicago, Carolina and Detroit. Capacity will be limited to between 10,000 and 20,000 fans, which Rovak said is around 20 percent of the seats that can be used in the stadium. He said the operations team has been walking Mercedes-Benz Stadium to figure out exactly how many seats can be accommodated. What it has decided on is an almost checker-board-like seating. So, if you take the 70,000 seat venue, there will be pods of seat sizes ranging from one single seat to a group of six seats together spread out across the stadium. These pods will be designated with different price categories, so when PSL or season ticket holders are chosen for one of those first four games, they will have to select seats within their price category. So, who will be chosen for which games and how many games of those first four will a single PSL or season ticket member be allowed access to? Rovak said the team is hoping the surveys can help answer that question, but the organization is currently projecting that most season-ticket holders will be able to go to one, maybe two, of those first four home games. When asked which way he felt fans are leaning between not feeling comfortable to go to games vs. being absolutely willing to go, Rovak said he thinks there will be more fans upset they didn’t get chosen to go to one of those first four home games than the ones upset that they have to opt out completely on their own accord. “That’s my personal belief because I just think when I picture who I am going to be hearing from more, we are going to be hearing from fans that have been going to games for 20 years and now, ‘You’re only allowing me to go to one game in the next two months? That’s ridiculous,'” Rovak said. “I think we are going to hear from that guy a lot. And I feel for that guy. It pains me.” Rovak said this is why teams have these big stadiums: to fill them. But obviously with a season-ticket base of 55,000 to 60,000 but a single game capacity of only 10,000 to 20,000 pleasing everyone just isn’t possible. “We have thousands of season ticket members who haven’t missed a game in four decades, and it sucks,” Rovak said. The reality of the situation is that if chosen, this isn’t really a golden ticket. Rovak said he and his team are trying to be as honest as possible with game-attending fans about what their expectation could be if chosen to attend games. There’s a certain responsibility a fan has to keep others safe, as well. “Coming to a football game this year — in September — is going to be very different,” Rovak said. “It’s going to be: You have a mask, nobody is sitting next to you, we are not going to encourage those social spaces, there’s not going to be a big pregame show, there isn’t going to be access on the field. You’re going to have to come, and you’re going to have to really like football. … To some people, that’s awesome. To other people, like my wife, it’s not.” From a business model standpoint, Rovak believes even with the unfortunate short-term effects of the pandemic that the long term plans won’t be much impacted and that every decision made was with the fans in mind. He hopes that comes across. “This should set us up to be in a really good place in 2021,” he said. “Listen, none of us want to deal with limiting capacity in 2020; we much prefer selling out the full venue, but at the same time it allows us to focus on the servicing of our fans now but also I think having a long-term retention because we expect to get a pent up demand for next year.”
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