As Devonta Freeman was just about to step away from his post-practice media conference at Atlanta Falcons minicamp Wednesday, the star running back caught another question from the back of the crowd of reporters standing outside in the shade.
A grinning, chuckling Freeman leaned back from the microphones and jokingly responded to the surprise reporter, the one he calls “Coach Q.”
See, anyone on the outside could see Julio Jones’ contract holdout as a gloomy situation for the franchise. But not for coach Dan Quinn and his tight-knit Falcons Brotherhood.
Despite the absence of their All-pro wide receiver, it was business as usual for the players and coaching staff from inside the team’s home practice facility in Flowery Branch.
Just like general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s short statement Monday — that Jones’ reps and the team have had “productive and constructive” talks — the team is keeping all focus on the players present. This week, all eyes pointed to this next crop of young playmakers.
Dan Quinn applauded the progress made by the team, specifically the rookie class and second-year players as Day 2 of the Falcons three-day minicamp portion came to a wrap.
Those include the likes of some youthful additions in Year 2 of Atlanta’s Steve Sarkisian-run offense: First-round pick and wide receiver Calvin Ridley, and running back Ito Smith.
Quinn especially raved about the exemplary work ethic of linebacker Duke Riley, and the swagger of Takk McKinley as he materializes into a stout pass rusher opposite of Vic Beasley.
“I appreciate the way the young group has come along,” the fourth-year coach said to reporters Wednesday. “They’re making strides. Yesterday, we were really happy in regards to the ball. The defense was really hawking it and gettin going. That came back today, and we had a real big emphasis offensively. They’ve certainly responded.”
Quarterback Matt Ryan could say the same for this ripe class, and gave a positive assessment of how things have developed over the course of the summer.
“It’s been really good for us,” said Ryan. “We’ve had a lot of young guys get some opportunities...to get snaps, to get reps. They’ve come a long way in the last couple of weeks. They’ve improved quite a bit.”
Ryan has had some help getting these young pass catchers up to snuff. Mohamed Sanu and fourth-year receiver Justin Hardy are two veterans Ryan acknowledged to have embraced their roles as mentors to this growing receiving corps.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Ryan said. “Mohamed has been on the field for us and has done a great job, and has kind of been mentoring some of our younger wide receivers with how to run routes, how to expect the ball in certain positions and recognition of coverage.”
Hardy, who had minor shoulder surgery late January, has found ways to keep busy in a extremely productive way in the rehab process.
“(Justin) has been like a coach on the field for us,” added Ryan. “He knows the system so well, and he’s been able to see it from a different perspective. But also, he has such positive input to those guys. He’ll take a real look at every snap, at every couple of different positions where the young guys are at, to be able to help coach them for us.”
Sanu saw career highs in passes caught (67) with 703 yards and five touchdowns as Atlanta’s sure No. 2 last season. Hardy, nicknamed “The Wolf” by teammates and known for his sure-handedness in short-yard situations, caught 20 passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns as a No. 3 receiver.
Hardy, Sanu, Ridley and second-year wideout Marvin Hall were seen shagging punts for a small portion of Wednesday’s practice without pads.
“Those two have been phenomenal for us, and really have brought our young wide receivers along very quickly,” Ryan added of Sanu and Hardy.
It was no surprise that Ridley, marveled for his separation speed and route running abilities, has already tried on a number of hats in the passing game — out wide, in the slot — in recent weeks, per Quinn. The rookie did show a little inexperience Wednesday when he dropped a pass on a deep crossing route in 11-on-11 drills.
In defense of his young teammate, Freeman indicated it always starts rusty for the players at this stage in the game.
“We’ve played him at one spot and at this camp played him in more than one spot. In the first part of OTA’s, we left him as an outside receiver. And then we wanted to see what he would look like in the slot, and certainly, he answered those challenges as well,” Quinn said.
Coach Quinn would like to see his dynamic receiver “own the whole part of the offense” as that next step in his development.
“For him, it’s all about the versatility of playing inside and outside, and really detailing in the routes that come in,” he added. “So he’s got a big summer ahead of him. ...I’m real pleased with the progress we’ve seen.”
Ryan also confirmed a third-annual trip to Miami for July workouts with 11 teammates, one he anticipates Jones will be attending. For the past two years, Atlanta’s franchise quarterback has organized and paid for teammates to train at a facility in South Florida.
Freeman too confirmed his attendance for those July workouts near his old stomping grounds of Miami.
“Every player that’s playing receiver or quarterback, all of them have an extra set of eyes. It’s a real technique time,” Quinn said of the Miami trip. “The reason I like it so much is that it’s player led. It’s not where the directions or the initiative is coming from the coaches, but from the players themselves. They are the ones inside the white lines. It’s one of my favorite times for them to spend time together.”
Quinn and his staff will continue to shuffle and gage the performance of the young players with the final minicamp practice commencing at 10:45 a.m. today.