NFL Training Camps: Julio Jones gets red zone work, rave reviews for Ridley and more Falcons chatter
Matt Ryan, Takk McKinley and Dan Quinn discuss what to expect in our training camp look at the Falcons
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- After the talk of a holdout, star receiver Julio Jones reported to camp Thursday and then practiced Friday after the team restructured his deal. It wasn't an extension, but rather they moved about $3 million around to give to him this season.
"We felt like we came to a good agreement," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "The adjustment is cap neutral. It still allows us to be continue to focus on the other players we're focused on signing."
They followed that up by signing left tackle Jake Matthews to a five-year, $75-million extension on Friday. He is a cornerstone player of their offense.
Next up: Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who is woefully underpaid playing on his rookie deal as a fifth-round pick. He is making $1.9 million in the final year of his deal.
As for Jones, he looked like he hasn't missed a beat on the practice field Friday, gliding by defensive backs for much of the practice. He even said he and Matt Ryan worked on some new plays, which they hit.
One thing Jones does need to improve on is scoring touchdowns. Despite being as productive as any receiver in the league the past four seasons, he has just 23 touchdown catches in that span, and only three last season. That's why the team is focusing on the red zone with Jones during camp work.
Some more observations from Atlanta Falcons training camp:
Ridley turning heads from the jump
A player the Falcons are raving about his fellow receiver Calvin Ridley, the rookie first-round pick from Alabama. He will be a nice addition to the Falcons helping to give them another speed dimension outside. He had a nice catch-and-run on a crossing route in Friday's practice.
Jones raved about Ridley's desire to be good, saying he soaks up advice from both Jones and fellow receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Ryan's face lit up during an interview on Thursday when Ridley's name came up.
"I think he's a dynamic player," Ryan said. "He's different from some of the guys we have. Obviously, Julio is big, strong and just physical. When you see him walk through the door, you're gong, 'Oh, my gosh, this guy is intimidating.
"Calvin is different. He moves differently. He has a great change of direction. He has some really good top-end speed. He's kind of impressed me with that. He's faster than I thought, and I thought he was fast coming in. He's got another gear he can kick into."
With Ridley and Jones outside to go with Sanu inside, it will be a lot tougher to double Jones every snap, or to cheat the safety over the top as much as defenses have done over the past few seasons.
Sarkisian more comfortable in Year 2
One big key to the Falcons' success on offense will be the growth of coordinator Steve Sarkisian with Ryan and the rest of the offensive players. Sarkisian in his first year calling plays for the Falcons presided over a big drop in terms of production from 2016, when Ryan earned MVP honors and the offense led the league in scoring. The Falcons fell to 15th in scoring last season.
"I think it's always an adjustment and time you change coordinators," Ryan said. "Even in the same scheme, everybody has a different flavor. I think Sark is a lot more comfortable. He has a better understanding for the guys in this building, who we are, what we do, and how to utilize us within the things he's comfortable with. We're further along coming into this training camp than we were (in camp) last year."
In a brief chat with Sarkisian, he echoed those sentiments and said he is indeed more comfortable with the players now.
It will help that this year he has Jones, who missed camp a year ago while coming back from a foot injury. In fact this week, Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he thinks the first play Sarkisian called for Jones came in the Week 1 opener against Bears.
Having a healthy Jones can make any play-caller look better. The Falcons were just OK in their first season with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2015 before the offense clicked in his second season in 2016. Now they are hoping for the same type of jump in Sarkisian's second season. If they can come close to that, look out.
Finding an answer in the middle
The thing that stands out about Atlanta's defense is the speed. It's everywhere. It's not a big unit, but they can fly to the football.
If there is one major concern, it's the defensive tackle spot opposite Jarrett. Dontari Poe wasn't re-signed, leaving a major void in the middle of that defense. The Falcons have to hope that recently signed Terrell McClain or rookie third-round pick Deadrin Senat can step up and play big in that spot.
Senat is an interesting looking player. He is short at a listed 6-foot-1, but he's build like a fire hydrant and weighs in at 305 pounds -- at least according to the media guide.
If he can be an effective run player, keeping middle linebacker Deion Jones free to roam, the Falcons might be better on defense than they are on offense in 2018.
Healthy McKinley could make pass rush click
Defensive end Takk McKinley, who came on strong late in his rookie year last season, is a player who could prove to be one of the better young pass rushers in the league. McKinley had six sacks last season, four of those coming in his last five regular-season games. He also had one in each of the team's postseason games.
McKinley is coming off shoulder surgery, but he's added some bulk to his frame to help handle the bigger, stronger tackles in the league. He was cleared to practice this week after missing the team's offseason work.
"I feel good, and I still feel as fast," he said of the extra bulk.
With McKinley at right end and Vic Beasley moving back to end on the left side after a down year as a linebacker last season, the Falcons could have a dynamic pass-rushing duo. That's why stopping the run will be so important. If they can put teams in passing situations, those two speed rushers can pin their ears back and go.
"To have no limitations on his development I think is really important," Quinn said. "Not just from conditioning and technique work, but just the whole scheme and plan."
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