Notes, Quotes as Falcons Turn Page on OTAs, Eye Mandatory Minicamp

From quarterbacks to position battles and everything in between, here's a rundown of Atlanta Falcons OTAs.
Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Michael Penix Jr. have each drawn praise during OTAs.
Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Michael Penix Jr. have each drawn praise during OTAs. / Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons held their last OTA practice Thursday at IBM Performance Field and now turn their attention toward mandatory minicamp, which runs June 10-12.

Atlanta, led by a pair of new additions in head coach Raheem Morris and quarterback Kirk Cousins, held its first day of the offseason April 2, completed rookie minicamp from May 10-12 and ran nine OTA sessions spanning May 13 through June 6.

Now armed with a full roster and considerable time spent on both the practice fields and meeting rooms, Morris and staff have a better understanding of where they're at entering minicamp.

Here's a look at some of the biggest storylines thus far from Flowery Branch.

Morris Laying Foundation

There was nothing overtly wrong with the Falcons' culture under previous head coach Arthur Smith, and Morris isn't necessarily trying to start over, especially with the organization's people-first mentality.

But Morris's energy has been noticeable amongst returning players and staff members alike. He lights up rooms and never passes on an opportunity to tell a joke; defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said Morris could be a stand-up comedian if he pleased.

Still, Morris has an air of seriousness when needed. He's attempting to change the style, technique and method of operation from the previous staff to now, and he believes considerable ground has been made throughout the spring and into the first part of the summer.

Cousins, who's entering his 13th professional season and third with a new organization, agrees with Morris.

"I feel very good about our progress over the last nine, 10 weeks as a team together," Cousins said Monday. "We've covered a lot of football, a lot of install, and there's more to go. But just building continuity, building familiarity with teammates, with the scheme, with the coaches, that's what it's all been about, and we've definitely made those steps."

Cousins Healthy, Impressive

From the very first full-group meeting of the offseason, Cousins has emerged as a leader.

He gave a presentation to the whole room, then ate lunch with the offensive line during the first day. Before rookie minicamp, he took tight end Kyle Pitts and receivers Drake London and Darnell Mooney to Tampa, Fla., for a meeting with ex NFL head coach Jon Gruden.

Through his vast array of dad jokes, movie quotes and on-field intentionality, Cousins has generated respect inside Atlanta's building. He's been sharp during drills, and his chemistry with the new group of weapons is noticeable.

From a health standpoint, Cousins has been close to, if not entirely, a full-go. He said there have been a few plays where his competitiveness sparked a scramble, which coaches advised against, but he's done everything from a throwing perspective that Atlanta hoped to see.

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At the start of OTAs, Morris said he wasn't concerned with Cousins participating in OTAs because he wouldn't have people around his feet in the pocket, something that may change come training camp.

But for now, all signs are pointing up for Cousins in Atlanta.

"It's not a surprise he has had the success he's had in this league for such a long time by the way he goes about his business," quarterbacks coach T.J. Yates said. "You hear the term a 'pro's pro' all the time - he is the definition of a professional. Everything he does, how he carries himself, everything has a purpose."

Penix Points + Rookie Notes

The Falcons invited vast external attention when they selected quarterback Michael Penix Jr. at No. 8 overall in April's draft, and Penix's first month in his red non-contact jersey has certainly been closely monitored.

The 24-year-old Penix has been as one would expect: His arm strength stands out, his accuracy has been a bit of a rollercoaster and his leadership and willingness to learn have been praised by coaches.

In essence, it's been a fine start for Penix, while many others in the rookie class have been largely status quo throughout.

Third-round edge rusher Bralen Trice and fourth-round defensive tackle Brandon Dorlus haven't spent much time working with the first two teams defensively. A pair of defensive tackles in second-rounder Ruke Orhorhoro and sixth-rounder Zion Logue have seen second-team snaps, while fifth-round linebacker J.D. Bertrand dabbled in first-team snaps last week.

Perhaps the most impressive Falcons rookie thus far has been sixth-round receiver Casey Washington, who ascended from the third- and fourth-string offense early in camp to the first- and second-team by the middle.

Washington and Penix have already formed strong on-field chemistry, and the former has been a favorite target for the latter during seven-on-seven drills. Atlanta may be looking at a scenario where it carries six receivers - London, Mooney, Washington, veteran special teams standout KhaDarel Hodge and slots Ray-Ray McCloud and Rondale Moore.

Regardless, the story of Atlanta's rookie class is Penix's development - and thus far, Morris is pleased.

"I like what he's grown into," Morris said about Penix. "That's really special when you're talking about a rookie growing and developing and knowing what he should do, what he could do, even after the fact, with his self-corrections."

Position Battles

Atlanta's spent much of OTAs rotating players, and coaches (rightfully) insist little has been decided - but there certainly are positions shaping up to be closely contested come training camp and the preseason.

Among starting positions, the race to be the Falcons' No. 2 cornerback opposite A.J. Terrell is noteworthy. Clark Phillips III and Mike Hughes are the two top competitors, and Phillips appears to have the early edge, but this may run deep into training camp.

There's also a question mark at slot receiver, where McCloud and Moore have each worked with the first-team offense. McCloud spent two years with Falcons receivers coach Ike Hilliard as members of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Moore missed part of OTAs with a hamstring injury, giving McCloud an early leg-up.

Elsewhere, Atlanta has a battle forming at No. 4 safety behind Jessie Bates III, DeMarcco Hellams and Richie Grant, with several challengers fighting for the spot. Micah Abernathy, Tre Tarpley III and Dane Cruikshank are the three most prominent candidates to win the job and a place on the roster.

Absentees and Returners

The Falcons spent OTAs without each of their two staples at defensive tackle, as Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata never took the field. Jarrett is still recovering from surgery after tearing his ACL in Week 8 last year while Onyemata merely opted not to participate in the voluntary portion.

Sixth-round rookie running back Jase McClellan also hasn't appeared for Atlanta this summer, as he's fighting an undisclosed injury from the pre-draft process.

The Falcons are nevertheless quite healthy entering mandatory minicamp. Several players who missed all or most of last season with injuries, including linebacker Troy Andersen and running back and return specialist Avery Williams, have been full participants thus far.

Star running back Bijan Robinson returned to practice June 3 after missing over a month with a left ankle sprain.

And so, the Falcons are expecting close to a full deck for minicamp, the last chance to make an impression on Morris and company before the summer break hits and the calendar grows closer to training camp.

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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.