July is turning to August and football is in the air.
On Friday the FCN wandered to the other side of Lake Lanier to catch the Atlanta Falcons during day two of training camp at their Flowery Branch headquarters. With players practicing in helmets but without pads, the lighter practices were a showcase of scheme and fundamentals more than contact and physicality.
Nevertheless, Friday’s two-hour, late-morning session offered an early glimpse into what will remain and what will change for the Falcons after their 8-8 campaign last season under first-year head coach Dan Quinn.
The best part of the day was…
…backup running back Tevin Coleman catching a deep ball from Matt Ryan during passing skeleton drills. After two just two days of camp it has become evident that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan plans on using his running backs more in the passing game. That may not sound like much considering Devonta Freeman caught 73 passes out of the backfield in his first Pro Bowl-season, but it’s not about how many times tailbacks catch the ball—it’s where. Freeman lined up at split end against head coach Dan Quinn during some simple coverage simulations early in practice, running a deep-go route and drawing the first cheers from the crowd.
Once seven-on-seven began Ryan found Coleman on a 50-yard strike down the right sideline as the second-year back from Indiana burned two defenders and showed off some capable hands and receiver-like body control. Both players made similar plays on deep balls during Thursday’s opening session.
“Both of those guys are capable of catching the ball. Both showed that last year,” Ryan said. “Devonta had more opportunities last year but we think Tevin is going to do the same. Those guys are three-down backs.”
The worst part of the day was…
…a rough showing from one of the team’s top free agent signings of the offseason.
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who spent his first four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, dropped four passes—two of which were in casual quarterback-to-receiver routes. Sanu signed to replace long-time veteran Roddy White and failed experiment Leonard Hankerson as the team’s No. 2 receiver alongside all-world talent Julio Jones. His contract is a 5-year, $32 million deal with $14 guaranteed—a bubble of a deal considering he caught just 33 balls and never found the endzone in 2015. Sanu had issues with dropped passes during earlier seasons in Cincinnati, but is a solution away from being a serious receiving threat thanks to his physical frame and impressive speed. He was somewhat of a gadget player at Rutgers and coveted as a steal by the Bengals when they took him in the third round of the 2012 draft.
“As he gets more comfortable he’ll continue to showcase what a great player he is,” Ryan said of Sanu.
3 Players to Watch
Linebacker De’vondra Campbell (Rookie): A fourth-round selection out of Minnesota, Campbell could be the steal of the Falcons 2016 draft class. Nearly every offensive player who stopped for interviews Thursday and Friday raved about his talent. He made an impressive play in pass coverage against tight end Austin Hooper, another rookie, by getting his arm in front of a pass from behind without making illegal contact. Campbell boasts a 4.58 40-yard dash time, is 6-foot-4, 232 pounds and was a Big Ten honorable mention selection as a senior after making 92 tackles and tallying four sacks.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (Sixth season): Weatherspoon returns to the Falcons after battling injuries the past three years—namely, a torn Achilles that led to his release from Atlanta after Dan Quinn’s arrival and a hamstring issue that bothered him in Arizona last season. Weatherspoon was one of the Falcons’ most popular players from the team’s 2010 draft class and is one of just two—the other being Jonathan Babineaux—that remain from the Falcons defense from the 2012 NFC Championship. Weatherspoon may not offer as much as a pure athlete, but he’s embracing his role as a senior leader on a young team.
“I ain’t just going to just sit there and chill. I try to help everybody and hope they help me too if they see something,” Weatherspoon said. “(The rookies) are dope. …we have one that’s extremely fast and one that’s extremely long.
“As a veteran you have to bring them along. It’s about the team and a business. We have to do what we have to do to get better as a team, so at the end of the day I don’t care who starts.”
Weatherspoon is in camp on a 1-year, $1 million contract.
Running back Tevin Coleman (Second season): Coleman was projected to be the Falcons starting running back last season as a rookie. As a senior at Indiana he ran for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns while catching 25 balls. Devonta Freeman entered last year with a short history as a backup in a backfield that didn’t move for two seasons.
Then things changed. Coleman flashed his blazing speed and gazelle-like stature with 87 carries for 392 yards in a shortened rookie year, but his three lost fumbles and an injury shortened his playing time. Now it looks like he could cut back into the carries of Freeman, which has some Falcons fans on edge—as well as fantasy owners. It’ll be interesting to see where his ball control is as camp continues.
The Falcons have 13 more practices scheduled at Flowery Branch between now and Aug. 16, as well as the KIA Motors Friday Night Lights scrimmage at Grayson High School on Friday, Aug. 5, and one preseason game, Aug. 11, at home against Washington. All practices are either 10 a.m. to Noon or 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. and open to the public. For more information visit AtlantaFalcons.com.