Falcons Rookie WR 'Killing It' in OTAs, Minicamp

The Atlanta Falcons are eager to see more from rookie receiver Casey Washington.
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Casey Washington has turned heads this offseason.
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Casey Washington has turned heads this offseason. / Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons rookie receiver Casey Washington stood behind a microphone with several cameras capturing his every word. He turned to his left, threw his left arm in the air and motioned.

"Drake London, sitting over there," Washington last week at Falcons' minicamp. "Like, that's my teammate. It's still crazy."

Little did Washington know that London, now perched on a hill while talking on his cell phone after the Falcons finished their final practice before summer break, had praised his work just moments prior.

"He's been killing it out there," London said. "He's been doing his job. Fitting in really, really well."

Perhaps nothing better summarizes Washington's start to his Falcons career than that - feeling awestruck but earning praise from the right people around him.

Washington, drafted in the sixth round out of Illinois this April, has been an early winner during Atlanta's OTA and minicamp practices, which informally ended June 11 in Flowery Branch.

From the first session of rookie minicamp May 10 onward, Washington found strong chemistry with first-round quarterback Michael Penix Jr., noting after the session he'd watched Penix from afar last college football season.

That was the start of surreal moments for Washington. He said he still feels nerves whenever he speaks with four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Kirk Cousins in the hallways of the team's facility.

Now a month and a half into his time as a professional with just over one month of experience in Flowery Branch, Washington's feelings haven't changed.

"Still being here, you would have thought by this point maybe I settled in and it's normal for me now, but this is still pretty new," Washington said. "Being in the NFL is super exciting and it's still crazy to think about sometimes.

"But just to be here every day with my teammates, for me to get better and build relationships with my brothers and try to be the best every day."

The 6-2, 200-pound Washington jumped onto Atlanta's radar with a strong end to his senior season and a 39.5-inch vertical, which he paired with a 4.46 40-yard dash at his pro day to form a convincing athletic profile.

In the first-nine games of the 2023 season, Washington caught 27 passes for 295 yards. He was still searching for his first collegiate touchdown despite having logged 52 appearances.

During his final three games, Washington exploded, making 22 receptions for 375 yards and four scores. He had the best performance of his career in his last outing for the Fighting Illini, posting nine catches for 218 yards and three touchdowns.

Falcons receivers coach Ike Hilliard agreed with the notion that Washington is an ascending player - but what matters moving forward is what he does, not what he's done.

"You only get better or worse in this league," Hilliard told FalconsSI. "We want to limit the mistakes. You can't make the same mistakes all the time, or else you're going to slow things down for us as a group and you're going to hurt your chances of making a team.

"What's been good about Casey is he's working to correct the things we want corrected. Is he getting better every day? Is he gonna pass the tests, of sorts, every day? That's what we're looking for."

After rookie minicamp, Washington started OTAs working with the third- and fourth-string offenses. By the middle of OTAs, he began blending in with the first- and second-team unit, catching passes from Cousins and Penix.

Hilliard believes the move, which was orchestrated by Falcons head coach Raheem Morris, allowed Washington to better establish himself and learn more about how he operates in those situations.

The 23-year-old Washington has handled his opportunities well thus far, Hilliard said, but the Falcons are expecting more. They don't put players in boxes upon arrival or discount their work because of the capital used to acquire their services.

Washington hasn't yet experienced a padded practice as a professional, and workouts in shorts can only tell so much - but Hilliard believes the move to pads, which comes during training camp in late July, will show some of Washington's best traits.

"Casey's a tough kid," Hilliard said. "We haven't been able to put on pads and he hasn't had an opportunity to display that, but that's on tape. You'll see the aggressive nature of which he plays on tape, and I love that when it comes to wide receiver play."

Hilliard, a long-time NFL pass catcher who's drawn praise from those in the room for his perspective and ability to teach the game in different ways, is a central figure in Washington's development.

So is offensive coordinator Zac Robinson, who followed Morris from the Los Angeles Rams and will be calling plays for the first time in his coaching career.

Robinson has an extensive track record with the quarterback position, having both played and coached it, but comes from a system in Los Angeles where receivers have routinely starred. It's a stark contrast to the run-heavy offense the Falcons previously deployed under head coach and offensive play-caller Arthur Smith.

In 2021, Rams receiver Cooper Kupp accomplished the triple crown, leading all wideouts in catches, yards and touchdowns. This past season, fifth-round pick Puka Nacua set multiple rookie records in Los Angeles.

Washington shrugged off comparisons to Nacua during rookie minicamp, but the two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection believes there's a place for him in Robinson's system.

"If you look at this offense and where it comes from, there's some success that can happen in it," Washington said. "If you think of goals and where we can end up, that's fun to think about. But most importantly for me, what I fall back on is just taking it one day at a time.

"Just showing up, trying to be the best me of that day, I think that's really important for me to break things up. Getting better in the offense and more comfortable, and I guess we'll see where it goes."

Hilliard believes Washington has the traits and skill-set needed to satisfy the conceptual demands required by the Rams-style offense.

"He has unique hand eye coordination; rare, very strong hands," Hilliard said. "That's key to this offense because we're going to ask our receivers sometimes to play in some tight spaces, and you need to be confident with their hands and snatch the ball out of the air. I think he'll do that on a consistent basis."

Hilliard said the goal for Washington and every other receiver is to get better each day. Washington feels he's proven he can show up and compete each day, a trait he's learned from working alongside London and Darnell Mooney this summer.

As a sixth-round pick, Washington acknowledged he doesn't have as much wiggle room with mistakes as others when it comes to securing a roster spot. He's been an active participant in special teams drills and said he's giving everything he has regardless of the role he's put into.

Mistakes happen, and Hilliard knows that. He also recognizes many of Washington's are fixable.

"There's some room for growth as there always will be with younger players," Hilliard said. "Coming from college systems, when you flash cards and that tells you to run a hitch route - it's a little bit different here. So, he's improved every day and that's to be expected.

"Casey just has to play faster in some instances, and that's going to come with more time on the grass."

The Falcons get six weeks off before returning to Flowery Branch for training camp toward the end of July. It's the first real break for rookies since last summer, as college practices and games quickly transitioned to pre-draft training, workouts and visits. Washington was selected on April 27 and arrived in Atlanta just 12 days later for rookie minicamp.

But Washington doesn't plan on treating the time away as a vacation. He plans to work on technique and details with routes while spending time in the playbook. Taking care of his mind is a focal point, as he wants to come back with the right energy and be in the right headspace to help the Falcons this fall.

In essence, the summer getaway is hardly that for Washington.

"I'm going to do everything I can this six weeks coming up that we have off," Washington said. "I'm going to get my mind right, get my body right and come back the best version I can be."

Where that ultimately puts him come Week 1 remains to be seen. Morris said the players who do the most work during the time off, be it walkthrough reps or staying fit, often see the fruits of their labor in the season.

Washington plans on being one of them, but in an offense that's expected to see London, Mooney, tight end Kyle Pitts and running back Bijan Robinson dominate the target share, his role may be small.

For now, it's all unknown - his regular season roster spot, playing time and long-term outlook. But this much is true: Hilliard and the Falcons like how Washington's started. It's now up to him to carry the momentum into the fall.

"We'll just work to hopefully continue to have that growth and limit the mistakes," Hilliard said. "And we'll see what he can do when it's time to get under the lights and play some football."


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Daniel Flick

DANIEL FLICK

Daniel Flick is an accredited NFL writer for Sports Illustrated's FanNation. Daniel has provided boots-on-ground coverage at the NFL Combine and from the Atlanta Falcons' headquarters, among other destinations, and contributed to the annual Lindy's Sports Magazine ahead of the 2023 offseason. Daniel is a co-host on the 404TheFalcon podcast and previously wrote for the Around the Block Network and Georgia Sports Hospitality Media.