About four months before this week’s mandatory minicamp, Dan Quinn issued a challenge to his Atlanta Falcons coaching staff.
The weeks ahead would be a blur of player evaluation and acquisition in the form of free agency and the NFL draft, followed by the offseason workout program. Quinn’s hope for this crucial building period was that it would be the most productive yet during his time with the team.
Quinn now considers that mission accomplished.
“We challenged one another to have the best offseason we’ve ever had,” the third-year coach said. “We wanted to go for that in every way. … We’re very encouraged, (general manager) Thomas (Dimitroff) and I are, with the direction that the offseason went.”
The Falcons completed their three-day minicamp Thursday in Flowery Branch, wrapping up the final phase of the offseason. Practices consisted of individual and team drills with limited contact, though it helped wipe away the sting of last year’s crushing Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots.
Players are confident about the work they’ve put in since then, with minicamp serving as the final road marker before the 2017 preseason.
“I like where we’re at,” receiver Mohamed Sanu said. “Guys are doing what they need to do to get better. Coach (Quinn) told the guys to just prepare these next weeks, come back and have a great (training) camp.”
The team will have no football activities until it reconvenes for training camp July 27, when both rookies and veterans must report back to the practice facility in Flowery Branch.
Quinn said he hopes his players will be “recharged” when they return following the six-week break. Running back Devonta Freeman plans to spend some time with his family before getting back to training, while his teammates will engage in other leisurely activities.
“I’ll train, do pilates and stuff like that. Maybe some golf,” said second-year safety Keanu Neal. “Typical football player stuff, I guess.”
Whatever players opt to do until training camp, it’ll be a well-deserved break after 10 days of summer practices, during which Quinn and his staff focused mostly on individual development.
Quinn said that’s partly because the NFL docked Atlanta’s first three OTA sessions — the workout program preceding minicamp — for the team’s violation of league rules prohibiting excessive contact during the 2016 offseason.
The coaching staff made the most of the limited practice time by emphasizing one-on-one instruction, especially with the rookies and offseason additions. That strategy also served a separate, two-fold purpose: coaches got a better feel for the newcomers, who in turn received much-needed exposure to the team’s culture and scheme.
Just ask Neal, who faced a learning curve despite being a first-round draft pick that ended up starting all but two games during the Falcons’ Super Bowl run.
“Last year, everything was so fast,” the safety said. “You get install after install, not trying to get things mixed up and trying to get everything down. This year, it’s more to the point of understanding. Now that I understand the defense, I can get more detailed.”
When it came to the team portion of practice, though, Quinn employed an unusual tactic. He kept all coaches on the sideline, forcing players to handle on-field communication without assistance.
“We wanted to make sure that we could really function as a group offensively and defensively without the coaches’ communication and them signaling in the personnel situations,” Quinn said. “That was as important as anything, to see us function as a group.”
Though pleased with the evaluation during minicamp, Quinn conceded there were some spots that will require a further look — namely, the battle between Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland to replace Chris Chester at right guard.
That’ll be possible come training camp, Quinn said, when linemen will be in “their world” thanks to the increased contact allowed during those sessions.
But until then, the Falcons will need to maintain the conditioning they’ve cultivated during the offseason program if they hope to return to the Super Bowl for a shot at redemption.
“Just got to sharpen up your tools,” Sanu said of his plans for the next month and a half. “Make sure you’re on your Ps and Qs and get to where you feel that you need to be, get ready to have one of your best seasons. That’s individually and collectively. We tell those guys to prepare yourself because we want come back and get after it.”
Some players might work on their golf game, too.
“I’m getting the hang of it,” Neal said with a laugh. “I’m not bad, but I’m still learning, for sure.”