FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Here are five observations from Sunday’s Day 3 session of training camp with the Atlanta Falcons:
When the Falcons signed Hester to a three-year deal back in March, early reactions were positive. The move seemed safe, and a financially sound way to increase the team’s return game.
But for those who looked closely to the transaction, and then Hester’s addition to the roster, they saw the eight-year veteran listed not only as a return specialist, but as a wide receiver too.
Hester is the active career leader in punt return yardage, and eighth on the all-time list. He’s sixth on the active list in kick return yards, and 22nd all-time. But Hester hasn’t caught a pass in the NFL since 2012, a year he pulled in 23 passes.
The idea of Hester playing receiver isn’t all that strange. He has 217 career catches, and from 2008 to 2010 he averaged 49.3 receptions per season, with a high of 57 in 2009.
Since the Falcons have Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas, Hester isn’t going to turn into truly relevant pass-catching option. But he could be a guy that plays about 10-15 snaps on offense every game, in addition to his return duties.
In 1-on-1 drills Sunday, Hester put a move on an unsuspecting defensive back, and showed a nice burst of speed to burn by on a go route. Hester caught the touchdown pass in stride, and the defensive back never got within a few yards of him.
There’s only so much you can tell about a football player in shorts and a helmet, especially those guys in the trenches.
The first three sessions of training camp have been in helmets only. But that changes on Monday, when the Falcons put on shoulder pads, and the full accoutrement of thigh and shin pads.
When a team is trying to evaluate talent, being in helmets only is a hindrance. You can still get a feel for the skill players, but on the offensive and defensive lines, they just can’t go with full speed and power.
"The calibration of our roster definitely indicates that (the offensive and defensive lines were) an area we wanted to address," head coach Mike Smith said Sunday. "We’ve gotten bigger and stronger on both sides. We’ve added new players through the draft, and through free agency. And the guys who are returning are bigger and stronger.
"It’s going to be scrutinized every single day. I think you’ll see the depth chart will change, maybe not on a daily basis, but every couple of days. We want to look at as many combinations as we can."
Smith wants to get in and see how the new pieces along both lines work, and how the new coaches handle adjustments with pads on. Monday, and every padded practice after, will give Smith so much more of an idea about his linemen.
"We’re getting as close as you can get to play real football tomorrow," Smith said. "We won’t completely play real football because we’re not going to cut block in practice. It’s going to be a great evaluation, especially for the interior players on both sides of the line. We will get true evaluation starting tomorrow."
One of the more interesting battles to watch during these camp sessions, is the battle that pits receivers White and Jones against cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Not only are White and Jones two of the best receivers in the game, Trufant and Alford are two of the best young, up-and-coming cover men in the NFL.
Set aside the fact that Trufant and Alford as rookies got better, very quickly, because they had to face White and Jones, when that offensive duo was healthy. There’s respect and admiration from both sides, but there’s also fierce competitiveness, and tons of trash talk.
When the second team was on the field in 7-on-7 drills at one point Sunday, directly after Alford had knocked a pass away from White, a verbal jab was fired off. With the entire first-string secondary sitting on the ground grabbing a breath, safety William Moore, giving kudos to Alford, cried out "What’s up Roddy White?"
The next time the first-team offense and defense battled, White and Alford tangled in a route, and both went to the ground. Secondary coach Tim Lewis jumped on Alford a bit, asking him if he went after White, or White was the aggressor. Alford’s simple response was "Roddy’s crazy."
Earlier in Sunday’s camp session, during 1-on-1 drills, Jones took off with Trufant in tow about 10 yards in from the right sideline. Jones juked in, slowed down, juked in again and then turned back right toward the sideline. Trufant had turned twice, and had no idea where Jones was. Jones was five yards down the field catching a touchdown pass.
As the 1-on-1 drill ended, Trufant, speaking of Jones’ elite-level route running, yelled "They’re pulling out all the stops." As the defensive backs switched to a different drill station, cornerback Jordan Mabin tried to console Trufant.
"Yeah man," said Mabin. "There would have been a safety there."
While possibly true, the pat on the back didn’t seem to make Trufant feel better. He got burned, and burned badly.
That said, it’s amazing to see how much Trufant has grown from his rookie season last year, to now. Three days in, Trufant is the talk of camp in the secondary. He’s showing extremely well.
There’s a different feeling to training camp this season, compared to the six previous seasons under Smith.
Without a doubt, it’s easy to spot the 40-50 crew members shooting camp sessions for HBO’s "Hard Knocks." But they’re really interwoven into the fabric of practice, and not obtrusive at all.
The difference is in the ways this team practices, the new drills they’re using and the coaching methods involved.
These guys are working hard, but there are still some jocular moments happening. But it’s toned down from years past, as practice Sunday was very workmanlike.
While a training camp session is still a mixture of positional drills and competitions between units, whether it be 1-on-1, 7-on-7 or 11-on-11, the types of drills being utilized has changed a bit. The offensive and defensive line units are where you see this the most. Offensive line coach Mike Tice and defensive line coach Brian Cox are making every effort to not only toughen up the guys in the trenches, but to also make them much quicker in short bursts.
And Tice is taking a refreshing, hands-on approach to coaching, and he’s doing so at a 1-on-1 level.
When the offensive line was working on redirecting a pass-rusher, there were moments when the pass-rusher got the best of the offensive lineman. In years past, those losses by the blocker were looked at on tape later in classroom sessions. They definitely weren’t often fixed in the moment, on the field.
Tice isn’t coaching like that.
When an adjustment needed to be made to the way a blocker was working, Tice stopped the drill and got in there and fixed the issue. These 1-on-1 coaching moments are quite new to the offensive line this season, and it seems to be beneficial.
**For those interested in knowing who was returning punts during special teams drills; it was: Devin Hester, Harry Douglas, Robert McClain and Robert Alford. That job is all Hester’s, but it’s interesting to see Alford back there, and to a certain extent Douglas (even though Douglas has been very vocal about loving the idea of returning punts).
**In some down-the-depth-chart news, undrafted rookie receiver Tramaine Thompson ran two very nice routes in 1- on-1 drills for long gains. Thompson caught 32 passes last season at Kansas State and scored five touchdowns. He also led all receivers with at least 10 catches on the team, with a 17.2 yards per reception average.
**Rookie defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman had a rough session on Sunday, particularly in the portions during positional drills. He had trouble shedding blockers, and rarely got to the ball carrier. In fact, he was tossed around quite handily by the offensive linemen.
**Rookie linebacker Tyler Starr is quickly becoming a fan favorite. If he continues getting to the quarterback like he did on Sunday, he’ll be a coach’s favorite too. The defense isn’t allowed to touch a quarterback, but if they were allowed, Starr would have had two sacks today. He’s relentless, and quick in his role as a pass-rush specialist.
**Prince Shembo got his hands on at least one pass on Sunday, as he continues to transition to an inside linebacker position. He was in coverage when he broke up the pass.
**The offense figured out a way to spread the middle of the defense out on Sunday, and pick apart the defense with underneath routes. With linebackers following receivers out wide, the offense was frequently able to sneak either a running back or receiver into the middle of the field for an easy reception. The defensive coaching staff was attempting to make adjustments on the fly, without much success.