Falcons rookie minicamp proves a starting point for Arthur Smith and his players

It wasn’t, in the moment, any different for Arthur Smith. The Atlanta Falcons' first-time head coach had seen other people go through this and been on enough staffs to see what worked and what didn’t. He’d been working toward this for 15 years since his playing career ended at North Carolina.

It’s not a game or a full practice with 90 guys running around. But this weekend was a milestone for Smith of sorts at Falcons rookie minicamp -- the first time he held the whistle as the one running the show.

On the field, it felt the same for him as it had with the Titans and Washington, when he was an assistant and then a coordinator. Only later did he really think about the difference.

“It’s usually at night when you’re going back, watching the film, watching the different individual drills, you take a moment,” Smith said. “And you’re like, all right, now I gotta be -- I’m responsible for the entire team, and it’s cool. It’s surreal. It’s what you wanted. It’s what you signed up for.”

COVID-19 protocols changed what this year’s rookie minicamp looked like. There were fewer tryout players and fewer players overall, altering what teams could do. One of Smith’s philosophies is “you may hate change, but you loathe extinction.” He took what the NFL said they could do, adapted his plan and set out to practice.

Because so much of what rookie minicamp is ends up being an introduction. Atlanta didn’t go full speed much of Friday’s practice, but it became a starting point for rookies to get a sense of what they were getting into.

“I love getting on the green grass, being able to make calls and command a defense, things like that,” said safety Richie Grant, the team’s second-round pick. “Went a little fast, a little fast [Friday]. I think that was on purpose to see how we practice and how we react to situations like that.”

Saturday, defensive lineman Ta’Quon Graham said, picked up a bit more. There were fewer mistakes, and the pace was a little bit faster -- a little bit cleaner. The "high intensity” stayed the same.

It also gave players a chance to see what Smith will be like as a coach. There were interactions during the pre-draft process and meetings and conversations since, but none of them had seen Smith on the field as a head coach.

Smith said he could tell players hadn’t been in a true practice environment for months. First-round pick Kyle Pitts said tempo and details were focal points, along with attitude and effort.

That makes sense since everyone, on some level, is still new to this.

“Everyone is kind of falling in line,” Pitts said. “And following the leader.”

Smith’s plan was to start slow as a building process. So while he might be intrigued by cornerback Avery Williams’ potential as a two-way player, Smith wants Williams to focus on defense and special teams first. It's why they are working offensive lineman Jalen Mayfield inside at guard even though he played tackle in college to get a sense of how he might adapt on the interior. They already know what he can do outside. Mayfield said it would be a “challenge” but he has changed positions before -- from left tackle to right tackle at Michigan.

It's all part of the start of their careers because while football is still football, everything about this is new -- for the coach and the players -- including how everything is going to be structured.

“Try to educate yourself, what’s the best, you’re looking at things in sports science, you’re looking at numbers, you’re looking at, really, the different teaching methods,” Smith said. “You’re just looking around for anything you think can help your team and I’m not trying to be too concerned about what somebody else outside of here is doing but we’re constantly evaluating it.

“It’s the approach that we’ll have as long as I’m here.”