FLOWERY BRANCH, GA—Mike Thomas strengthened his hold on the number two wide receiver job with a best-in-class performance Monday morning at the Atlanta Falcons training facility. Thomas made several receptions in the Jaguars' first venture into the combined-practices regimen of Jack Del Rio's eight training camps as the team's head coach.
"Mike's been making big plays. Mike's determined to take a step forward. He's an explosive player. He's fighting for that role right now," Del Rio said of Thomas and his attempt to secure the "number two receiver" designation.
Thomas made three receptions in skeleton drills. Two were throws from David Garrard, the most impressive of which was a deep-out completion that started the drill. Garrard completed four of six passes in the drill and backup quarterback Luke McCown was three of four.
In 11-on-11, special categories work, Thomas made two more receptions, including a fingertip grab over the middle on the final pass of the session. The special categories were first-down runs and third-down blitzes. Garrard was three of five and McCown completed one of four passes.
"We continue to talk about 'Mike T' because he continues to make plays. I told him if you continue to make plays I'm going to continue to throw the ball to you," Garrard said. "Hopefully, his confidence will continue to grow so we can solidify that number two spot."
It's expected Jarett Dillard will provide Thomas with competition for the number two spot after Dillard comes off the PUP list, which is expected to happen soon. Hybrid tight end Zach Miller is also another contender for the "number two" designation, while second-year wide receiver Tiquan Underwood is considered to be a player on the rise who might challenge for playing time.
"I thought it was a great day," Garrard said of the combined practices, an up-tempo affair that featured pass-rush drills and a nine-on-seven, middle-run period. "Working with another team makes it interesting. They don't know our tendencies and we don't know theirs. It's truer."
The best thumps of the morning resonated from the nine-on-seven work between the Falcons offense and the Jaguars defense. The Jaguars defensive line was spirited.
Offensively, the Jaguars struggled up front against John Abraham and company, mostly because tackles Eugene Monroe (knee) and Eben Britton (calf) did not participate. At least eight Jaguars players (Austen Lane, Teddy Lehman, Courtney Greene, Daryl Smith, Kyle Bosworth, Tyson Alualu, Monroe and Britton) either didn't participate or were limited due to injuries.
"I thought we matched up pretty well," running back Maurice Jones-Drew said. "They had their top two corners down and we had our two tackles down."
"You want to win every rep but the reality is you're not going to win every rep. We had some wins," defensive end Aaron Kampman said of the pass-rush drills. "It continues to be something we're trying to get better at."
Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton was the Jaguars' most effective pass-rusher. Though Knighton is in a training camp struggle to decrease his weight, it has not diminished his speed or power. Knighton is playing at a level even higher than he did as a rookie, when he was clearly the Jaguars' best defensive lineman.
"It was a very spirited practice," Falcons head coach and former Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "The defense was flying around and the quarterback did some nice things," Smith added, referring to his quarterback, Matt Ryan. "It was nice to see our guys compete and their guys did as well."
Ryan got hot toward the middle of practice and impressed onlookers with his accuracy. He was, however, intercepted once, by linebacker Freddie Keiaho.
"He's pretty sharp and he's very tough," Falcons quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, a member of Del Rio's original Jaguars staff, said of Ryan. "He's a natural leader, too."
There were a couple of brief scuffles between the Jaguars defense and the Falcons offense. Del Rio said chippiness is discouraged.
"That's not what we want. You're not going to show me how tough you are by being chippy," Del Rio said.
The Jags head coach explained that he brought up the idea of a combined practice while at the scouting combine last winter. It was natural to present the idea to Smith, since Jacksonville and Atlanta are close enough geographically to make it work, and "having a guy like Mike, I trust, helped.
"You can fall into a routine a little bit," Del Rio said of training camp. "This is very valuable work for us. I think we're going to see more and more of this."
The combined practices, which are to include one more session on Monday and two on Tuesday, provides General Manager Gene Smith and his scouting staff an opportunity to evaluate their players against a team that is considered to be a Super Bowl contender. It also allows up-close evaluation of marginal personnel on the Falcons' roster; players in whom the Jaguars might have interest at cut time.
"I like the tempo," Smith said of the morning practice. "It's a good level of intensity and physical work in a controlled environment. My initial impression is that we held our own."
When it was suggested to Smith that Thomas had a good morning, Smith said, "He's had a good camp. He's got to sustain it."