Four things to watch: Falcons’ mandatory mini-camp

Coach Mike Smith (left) and the Atlanta Falcons open training camp in five weeks.

John Bazemore/AP

Next week the Atlanta Falcons hold their three-day mandatory mini-camp at Flowery Branch, their last peek at players until training camp starts in about five weeks.

The Falcons have had almost perfect attendance at Organized Team Activities, which are voluntary. Wide receiver Roddy White, who missed the first two weeks of OTAs, returned for the third week, representing about the only significant veteran who was absent at all. (Place kicker Matt Bryant might have missed a couple of practices, but the Falcons do very little in the way of practicing with their field goal unit at OTAs.)

The Tuesday and Wednesday sessions, which begin at 3:30 p.m. at the team’s practice facility in Flowery Branch, are open to the public. Here are four things to look for:

Since the team announced the news on Tuesday that top linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will miss the entire season with a torn Achilles’ tendon, what strategies might the Falcons take during mini-camp?

According to one report, the Falcons are interested in former New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma, former Colts linebacker Pat Angerer and former San Diego and Houston linebacker Tim Dobbins. Dan Connor, who entered the league the same year as Matt Ryan and is also from the Philadelphia suburbs, could be another possibility. Based on his injury history and the Bounty-gate baggage that he carries, Vilma would seem like an unlikely signing. Angerer is just finishing up rehabbing a knee injury that ended his 2013 season. Injuries are why those players are available. There’s a good chance that one of the four could be on the field starting on Tuesday.

Among the rookies, it will be curious to see which are worked in more with the first team, if any, or the urgency with which the coaches are instructing those who could potentially fill Weatherspoon’s spot. Most eyes will be on Prince Shembo, a fourth-round pick, and Marquis Spruill, a fifth-rounder.

The Falcons are spending $3 million a year on Devin Hester, perhaps the greatest kick returner in league history. That’s a heavy price to pay for a player who just returns kicks.

Curiously, the Falcons are listing Hester as a wide receiver. In his previous eight seasons with Chicago, he was listed as a defensive back, although he did participate on offense. With Tony Gonzalez gone and the Falcons’ lacking a true pass-catching spot at tight end, they will have to explore more options on offense in terms of receivers.

Falcons’ offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter excels at putting the ball in his playmakers’ hands, especially on screen passes. With his speed, Hester would fit well in that role. Keep an eye out during the open practices to see if the Falcons use Hester in this fashion.

Falcons head coach Mike Smith has said that if fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman can learn to pick up the blitz, he has a chance to be more than a situational player. How will that sit with long-time veteran running back Steven Jackson?

Perhaps not well. Freeman missed a couple of days of OTAs because he was invited to an NFLPA program that teaches rookies about the business of the league. That means the coaching staff will want to get him in even more situations during mini-camp to compensate for lost time.

Keep an eye out for Jackson during the open sessions when Freeman works with the first team and Jackson is left on the sideline. What is his demeanor? Jackson is a competitor and might not take to it kindly.

On Thursday it was announced that the Falcons would be featured on HBO’s documentary-style, all-access training camp program. The only reaction we have had to it so far are some statements from Smith, owner Arthur Blank and a few other executives.

How will Smith react when queried by the media? For a man who chooses not to reveal much about the team’s inner workings, the program could make him feel as if he is stripped naked.

How will the players react? Undoubtedly, some will love it while others will not. Ryan is coached far too well in these matters to show how he feels but it will nonetheless be interesting to see what he says. ​