FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons opened 2021 NFL training camp Tuesday at the team’s practice facility. Here's a closer look at a few storylines:
What will first-year head coach Arthur Smith’s offense look like considering what the Falcons have to work with compared to his prior offense in Tennessee?
It’s still tough to say because there was no point during the offseason where the entire offense came together, at least with skill position players. Receivers Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage and running back Mike Davis were not on the field for most or all of offseason workouts so it’s not clear yet. But Smith has long said he’s going to adapt and play to his team’s strengths.
Looking at the offense, the strengths lie in the passing game even with Julio Jones in Tennessee. Atlanta still has a clear No. 1 receiver in Ridley, a capable No. 2 in Gage, two high-level tight ends in Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst and a consistent quarterback in Matt Ryan. How much Atlanta runs could depend on the ability of Davis to handle a larger workload and the emergence from a cadre of talented backs to either complement Davis or become a featured player. If that happens, you might see more running. Otherwise, if Smith coaches to his personnel, it could be a lot of passing predicated by game situations to help set up the run. Soon enough, we'll find out.
Does Atlanta have enough defensively to be competitive in a division with the defending Super Bowl champions in Tampa Bay and the multitude of offensive options in New Orleans?
At the top of the roster, yes. Grady Jarrett is one of the top interior defensive linemen in the NFL. Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun are two high-level linebackers who can handle the middle of the field. A.J. Terrell is a clear candidate to have a breakout second season, as many top-end corners do, and Atlanta revamped its safety room to make it the deepest on the defense with capable veterans Erik Harris and Duron Harmon along with second-round pick Richie Grant.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees is also a plus. He’s a coordinator-level legend who routinely gets the most out of his defenses. He’ll use a lot of those safeties to create confusion and potentially pressure. He can work well with the group he’s got.
The questions begin with the pass rush, where the Falcons have to hope Pees is able to get the most out of Dante Fowler Jr., and then with depth. Most of Atlanta’s starting 11 on defense have a chance to keep the Falcons competitive. But if-and-when a player gets hurt on the defense, the depth is a real concern and could cause Atlanta defensive agita real quick.
What type of role will No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts have within the offense?
Pitts should have a dynamic role in the offense from the first game of the season. Top 5 draft picks usually see playing time early on and in his spring workouts Pitts looked like he fit in pretty smoothly. Ryan was throwing to him often and they were developing a rapport. He’s also a player Smith is going to try and line up all over the field to create mismatches.
That’s a staple of a Smith offense and a tenet of his entire philosophy. Having the ability to almost be positionless -- he’s listed as a tight end but he can play any tight end role, can be a fullback/H-back if need be as well as a receiver outside or in the slot -- is going to be huge for what Smith wants to create.
Even if the numbers don’t show up his rookie year, and tight ends traditionally are slow starters statistically in their careers, how he’s used could open up so many more things in the offense.
The Falcons traded wide receiver Julio Jones. How will this impact Atlanta?
We’ve covered this but now that it’s been done for a month, practices have been held and both sides are settled into their new situations. For the Falcons, it’s going to be a time of change. Ryan is going to have to get used to not having Jones as a safety option to throw to, although he will have Ridley and Pitts as enticing options. Gage should receive a much larger role and Pitts might be counted on for more from the get-go.
From a business perspective, it gave Atlanta the room it needs to sign its rookie class and have an operating budget -- something every franchise needs -- to make moves throughout the season when players come available or injuries inevitably occur.
The bigger impact will be with the fan base, which was still smarting about the trade well after it was completed. It’s going to take a minute for the Falcons fans to get used to seeing Jones in Tennessee after a decade in Atlanta. He was a beloved player for the Falcons, a likely future Ring of Honor recipient who almost certainly will end up in Canton as well. That’s usually who the star player-franchise divorce is hardest on: The fans. And it’ll be something the franchise will be measured against, particularly if Jones plays well in Tennessee, for the next couple of seasons.