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Falcons' 2nd-year players catching up in minicamp
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FLOWERY BRANCH — Rookies are not the only Falcons players going through their first minicamp this week.

This also is the first offseason program for such second-year players as receiver Julio Jones and running back Jacquizz Rodgers who had no minicamp or organized team activities last year because of the NFL lockout.

Jones, Rodgers and other second-year players are making up for lost time with lessons with their position coaches that began with OTAs in May.

Falcons coach Mike Smith says he's expecting to see the 2011 draft picks mature quickly.

"It's great to have Julio here in the offseason program," Smith said. "Last year was very unique because we didn't have an offseason program. We anticipate his maturation process is going to go real quick. The arrow is just going up and up with him and I think with all of our second-year players."

Some 2011 rookies played key roles despite missing the normal summer preparation.

Rodgers was the team's second-leading rusher in 2011 even though he said he wasn't confident he knew all the plays until almost halfway through the season.

"I would say probably like Week 5 or 6 is when you started feeling comfortable, because it's different from the practice to the game," Rodgers said.

Jones, last year's first-round draft pick from Alabama, missed three games but still had 54 catches for 959 yards and tied for the team lead with eight touchdown receptions.

Jones said he never allowed himself to wonder how much better his rookie season might have been with the benefit of a traditional offseason.

"I'm a competitor. I don't think it was that hard for me, as far as going out and competing and that aspect of the game," Jones said Wednesday. "But as far as the timing and everything, you can't make that up. Either you have that timing or you don't, and I didn't have that timing last year."

Now, with OTAs and the minicamp, Jones said he can tell a difference after a full offseason with quarterback Matt Ryan and receivers coach Terry Robiskie. Ryan found Jones for long passes on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"It's great, not only spending time with Robiskie but with Matt, connecting on balls and everything and just knowing where I'm supposed to be, the right depth and everything," Jones said. "It's very critical for me.

"The past is the past. You're just looking forward to the upcoming season and trying to go out there and play football and play fast and just have that confidence me and my quarterback are going to be on the same page this year."

First-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said he was amazed rookies moved into crucial roles across the NFL last season, including in Jacksonville, where his Jaguars' offense struggled with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Jacksonville finished last in total offense and in yards passing and 29th with 15.2 points per game.

"All rookies who had to play last year, that was an unbelievable stress on those guys," Koetter said Wednesday. "For those guys to do what they did was impressive. Obviously, having an OTA and minicamp and being able to be coached by their position coaches, you can see it in those guys' performance out here.

"Julio and Jacquizz give us two more explosive players and are progressing exactly as they should be."

Another key second-year player for Atlanta is middle linebacker Akeem Dent, who will compete with Lofa Tatupu for a starting job.

Dent, a third-round pick from Georgia in 2011, played mainly on special teams as a rookie.

Dent said having his first offseason is "real big."

"Last year, I didn't have a real chance to get to know everything that was going on," Dent said. "So right now I really have to come in and hone in on my assignments and get to know the whole defense."

Notes: The three-day minicamp ends with one practice on Thursday. ... Offense had the edge with a series of big catches in team drills. Jones drew cheers from the fans with a long touchdown catch. Roddy White caught a touchdown catch on a crossing pattern and then dunked the ball over the crossbar. ... With tight end Tony Gonzalez excused to miss the minicamp following the death of his stepfather, tight ends Tommy Gallarda and Lamark Brown caught Smith's attention with catches over the middle. But Smith noted that Gonzalez was missed. "Of course, that play action game gets a lot better when you have 88 out there, no disrespect to the guys we're talking about out here today," Smith said. "They did a nice job, though. They're learning."

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