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What I’ve seen, heard and learned so far during the Falcons’ preseason


Goober Pyle
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https://theathletic.com/1133503/2019/08/12/what-ive-seen-heard-and-learned-so-far-during-the-falcons-preseason/

 

The Falcons took a tight end away from Mike Mularkey’s meeting room Monday, electing to trade former fifth-round draft pick Eric Saubert to the New England Patriots for a 2020 conditional pick. By bringing Mularkey in to coach tight ends, to go with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s penchant to use the position quite a bit, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Atlanta keep four tight ends on the roster.

By trading away Saubert, perhaps the team has other plans.

There’s still a chance the Falcons could keep four tight ends, and that depends on whether they think Jaeden Graham, who spent his rookie year in 2018 on the practice squad, is ready to be on the 53-man roster. But considering the depth that has been accrued at other positions, the Falcons might be looking to use what was Saubert’s spot elsewhere.

Look no further than what the Falcons have at wide receiver and running back. Receiver looks to be the deepest group head coach Dan Quinn has had since taking the job in 2015. Everyone knows what Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley can do by now. This preseason, Russell Gage has seen a tremendous jump in his development. From there, Justin Hardy has proved to be a reliable rotational receiver in previous seasons. Christian Blake and Devin Gray, practice-squad members a year ago, have turned heads during practice. Rookies Marcus Green and Olamide Zaccheaus offer special teams value as return specialists.

“Receiver is one of those spots where, as you’re looking at roster spots five, six, seven — who has developmental experience to push through? That’s a big deal,” Quinn said. “That’s why these next three weeks, for a number of these guys to show what you can do in those moments, is a big thing.”

Typically, teams enter a year with five or six receivers on the roster. Therefore, Quinn saying “five, six, seven” deserved a follow-up: Could he envision keeping seven receivers on the roster?

Sure, he said, before being asked to elaborate.

“I think when you have the space to do it, who can be totally devoted to a special-teams role? That would be something to consider,” Quinn said. “It seems high, but as you go through it, past receiver, what would the role be on the team? When you look at it that way, maybe it’s a 52-man roster, and then there’s one or two special teams players that we go, ‘But we have to put them somewhere.’ We have to put them at a position. It could be heavy at running back, heavy at receiver, heavy at tight end. It’s just a matter of how we want to utilize those guys.”

In this line of thinking, perhaps this is where the return battle between Green and Kenjon Barner comes into play. Barner is a veteran running back who has 1,006 career kick and punt return yards in his career. Atlanta drafted Green this year, with the franchise hoping he can become an explosive option in the return game. In essence, Atlanta might already have its running backs and receivers slotted. And then whoever wins this returner battle winds up in either position group, while essentially serving as the team’s return specialist.

If Green becomes the top returner, Atlanta could wind up with seven receivers. But if the Falcons want Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith, Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison all on the 53-man roster, and if Barner is the best return option, the Falcons could open the year with five running backs.

While both scenarios might sound crazy, it’s turning into a distinct possibility.

Full steam ahead for Freeman 

Although he has dealt with various injuries in his pro career, Freeman only missed five games in his first four NFL seasons. Then came last year when knee and groin injuries sidelined him for 14 games.

While there was a chance for Freeman to return near the end of the 2018 season, he didn’t. And that was a smart decision, considering Atlanta wasn’t in position for a postseason run. Now, Freeman is in good health and hasn’t had any setbacks at the start of the preseason.

Based on how he has practiced, Freeman should be in line for a bounce-back campaign.

“He’s had an outstanding offseason,” Quinn said. “The energy he brought back, starting with OTAs, he’s a stronger man than what he was prior to his injury. You’ve heard people say, ‘Can you come back stronger from an injury?’ I think this is one of those cases where the answer is yes. He’s more violent in his cuts because of that strength. His mindset, determination is completely on point. He adds a lot to our team.”

While the Falcons are deep at running back, Freeman is no longer sharing the backfield with Tevin Coleman. Freeman also is being paid to be a workhorse back. In the third season of a five-year extension, Freeman is set to make a base salary of $3.75 million. His cap hit is $6.75 million, thanks to a prorated $15 million signing bonus. It’s time the Falcons got some extra usage out of their top back and it looks like this will be the season this occurs.

After missing most of last season, Freeman seems to have an even greater appreciation for the game. He has been all smiles this preseason, noting how he gets to live out the dream he has had since he “was 7, 8 years old.”

He also pointed out that the physical nature of his position will come with a beating at times. It’s not something he can, or will, dwell on.

“This is a physical sport, and it’s what I signed up for,” Freeman said. “I’m already expecting to be nicked up, bruised up and banged up. If injuries come, they come. That’s just what comes with this sport. That’s what I signed up for. But I don’t focus on that. I just focus on having fun, executing and making plays.”

If Freeman remains healthy, he elevates this offense into a higher gear. He’s a threat as a runner and receiver, and with Dirk Koetter calling plays, Freeman certainly should see a high volume of touches.

Defense will feature new wrinkles

Teams keep their schemes fairly vanilla during the preseason for obvious reasons. They’re not about to tip what they want to do before the regular season actually begins. Even so, it’s clear that this year’s defense will look different from how it has in prior years.

Look no further than some of the alignments the Falcons have used in the early going. Instead of using a traditional outside linebacker at times, Atlanta is using three defensive ends up front, with one, or sometimes two, standing up in a two-point stance. It hasn’t been uncommon to see Vic Beasley, Takk McKinley, Allen Bailey, Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison all on the field together.

Quinn alluded to some changes earlier in the offseason, telling The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz in June that he wasn’t pleased with some of the pressure packages his team used the past couple of seasons.

In practice, when the team has worked the first-team units against one another, the defense has looked instinctive and fast. One word floated around to describe the look of this year’s defense has been “unleashed.”

Time will tell if that does turn into an appropriate word to describe this defense.

Observations/thoughts

• When it comes to running back, there has been a clear pecking order to date. Smith, Hill, Barner and Qadree Ollison have worked in that order behind Freeman. The preseason game this week against the New York Jets could see a change. With Ollison having a strong finish against the Miami Dolphins, he could get his number called a little earlier. The same could be said about Hill, as it pertains to the first couple of series, considering he has been one of the preseason’s standouts.

• Sticking with the roster construction theme, the offensive line figures to have either eight or nine after roster cuts. Eight is usually a good number, with seven active on game day. The Falcons, however, are deep at this position group, considering they brought in two free agents and drafted two more in the first round. Locks on the line include Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, Ty Sambrailo, Jamon Brown and James Carpenter. The other two spots likely will come down to Wes Schweitzer and Matt Gono. Schweitzer seems certain to make the roster since he’s the backup center. In fact, he has spent most of his practice time as the No. 2 center as opposed to guard. But then there’s Gono, the 53-man roster mainstay from a year ago the Falcons have been developing. Quinn has praised Gono for his work during the past year. “As he’s learning on the job, I like that because of the urgency and physicality that he’s playing with. He’s definitely somebody that’s got our attention,” Quinn said.

• Jermaine Grace, who recorded an interception against the Dolphins, will be a player to watch Thursday night. Grace has great speed at linebacker and could find a role on passing downs — that is if he makes the 53-man roster. He has been impressive when given the opportunity, and he has had plenty of chances to work in with the first and second units with Deion Jones (foot) and Foye Oluokun (groin) missing practice.

• At safety, undrafted rookie Parker Baldwin got the start against Miami and played 54 snaps — the most of any Atlanta defender. Atlanta was one of the only teams to scout Baldwin extensively as he came out of San Diego State. Quinn said the Falcons liked Baldwin’s size and that they believe he can be developed into a good defensive back. While he got a lot of playing time last week, Baldwin might not get as much moving forward, Quinn noted. Ronald Martin is also competing at strong safety, with Kemal Ishmael — who can play safety and linebacker — an option to be Neal’s primary backup, as well.

 

 

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