With the first game of preseason football just days away, I have somehow managed to contain my giddiness long enough to bring you an update on some of the position battles that have been unfolding during training camp.
We can all agree that there is absolutely no starting quarterback controversy in Atlanta. Matt Ryan is our starter. In my opinion, the second string position is not in question, either. Cristobal Rojohombre has had a solid showing during training camp, and there is no doubt that he continues to be capable and competent in the backup spot. There may, however, be a bit of competition for the third string spot between John Parker Wilson, or J.P. Dubs, as my daughters refer to him, and the undrafted free agent from the University of Louisville, Adam Froman.
I have been impressed with Froman so far. He has a really strong arm, and decent accuracy. He does seem a little green, which is not surprising considering that a) he’s a rookie, and b) the weird offseason, but he has a great deal of potential. I think, however, the third string spot goes to J.P. without question, for one reason in particular: he recently signed a brand new $480,000 per year contract with the Falcons. If anything, look for Froman to end up on our practice squad, which would give him the time and opportunity to mature as a pro. I could see him developing into a very viable third string quarterback in the near future, and potentially emerge as Redman’s second string replacement as time passes.
The Falcons fared extremely well in this strangest of offseasons, but one free agency departure that has the potential to impact the season is right guard Harvey Dahl signing with the St. Louis Rams. Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson have been the frontrunners to assume this starting role, and Reynolds is winning the battle, as his first string position on the recently released unofficial depth chart for Friday’s preseason game against the Miami Dolphins would indicate. Reynolds’ performance in camp has been consistent enough to warrant this move. In addition, it has been rumored that Johnson suffered a concussion during camp yesterday, so Reynolds is a lock for the time being.
With Jason Snelling back in The Branch where he belongs, the Falcons are set with a number two running back. Snelling took a lot of reps at practice yesterday to get him back up to speed, as you would expect. His hands are as reliable as ever, and he looked solid and prepared. Rounding out the top options in the running back corps are Jacquizz Rodgers, Gartrell Johnson and Antone Smith.
Jacquizz Rodgers has been consistently impressive throughout camp. He is quick, evasive, and has excellent ball control as he bobs and weaves through the defense. Rodgers even broke through the defense on a standard “up the middle” play that would have netted one yard in a game situation for Michael Turner.
Gartrell Johnson and Antone Smith are both playing as if they want to win a spot in the Falcons’ running back rotation. I have been more consistently impressed with Smith, who runs strong, fights for yards, and is a decent receiver. Johnson, however, has also looked good in camp and has game experience that Smith lacks, which may give him an edge.
Let’s gloss over Roddy White and Julio Jones for the moment, since we all know exactly where they will fall on the depth chart. Based on his performance in camp thus far, Harry Douglas is a solid number three receiver. Last year during camp, HD was hesitant on his feet, and that is no longer a factor. As is often the case in the second year following an ACL injury, Harry’s knee is now 100% healthy and his performance proves it.
Kerry Meier has won me over in the past few days. He has the size and athleticism to beat coverage, has decent speed for a guy his size, and has reliable hands. If I were in charge of the depth chart for the season (and I’m not, just to clarify) I would have Meier fourth, behind HD, and Special Weems rounding it out at fifth.
There are a few other receivers to keep an eye on as the Falcons prepare to cut the roster to 53. Andy Strickland, who spent last season on our practice squad, has had a great showing during camp. He doesn’t have the size of Meier, but is quick, has good hands, and has a lot of potential. Also, Brandyn Harvey and Drew Davis caught my eye with some spectacularly impressive catches yesterday.
One of the more interesting training camp position battles has been between defensive backs Chris Owens and Dominique Franks for a starting nickelback bid. Owens has tremendous speed and natural athleticism, but I do feel that he doesn’t use either of these qualities in coverage as effectively as he could. Franks, on the other hand, has consistently performed impressively in camp. He has had at least one interception during each practice I’ve attended this season. Franks appears to anticipate the offense more effectively than Owens at this point. Owens is currently listed on the unofficial depth chart for Friday’s game as first string, but I feel confident that Franks has the opportunity to win this starting spot long-term.
The most likely backups at strong safety are Rafael Bush and Shann Schillinger. Bush has a much better feel for the speed of the game than Schillinger, who struggles at times to anticipate the offense the way a strong safety must. Bush looks more natural on the field and has a much better read of the offense as it unfolds. I anticipate that Bush will be the go-to backup at this position. Considering Rafael Priest’s consistent performance in camp this season, he is another player to keep an eye on during the preseason.
Sean Weatherspoon has been fun to watch during camp. He is always working hard and it is evident that he is excited about the season and ready to contribute in a big way. I don’t think we’ll see any surprises in the starting linebacker slots. Expect Spoon and Mike Peterson to start on the outside, and Curtis Lofton to hold down the middle. With veterans Stephen Nicholas and Coy Wire providing backup, as well as Spencer Adkins and rookie Akeem Dent, we have excellent depth at this position and should be able to keep our primary guys fresh.
Rookie punter Matt Bosher is listed on the unofficial depth chart as the first string punter, and based on his performance in camp, he has earned it. Matt Bryant is back as our kicker, and he looks better than ever. The Falcons are in excellent shape at both of these positions.
The Best Names on the Roster
I love Bear Woods, because he has crazy dreadlocks, and is teaching Curtis Lofton to play the guitar, and his name is Bear Woods, but I don’t think my affection for him is going to be enough to win him a roster spot, unfortunately. Woods consistently struggled yesterday and took a lot of correction during drills. I have my fingers crossed that he will wind up on our practice squad, because I suspect he will be a casualty of roster cuts in the near future.
I looked and looked for fullback Thor Merrow to do something in camp yesterday, and never saw him. However, I maintain that he should be the backup to Ovie Mughelli, because I don’t think you can justify cutting a guy named Thor. End of discussion.
I forgot to eat breakfast prior to camp yesterday, so the random observations after the jump are brought to you by my low blood sugar.
Matt Ryan looks completely physically prepared so far in camp, but what has impressed me most about Ryan is his demeanor. He seems to have excellent control over the offense. When his offense does not line up the way he expected, he corrects them with authority. It is clear that Ryan has very high standards of performance for the offense going into the 2011 season, and he is exhibiting the kind of leadership the team will need from him in order to take their performance to the next level.
Julio Jones has been nothing short of impressive thus far, and I saw something from him in camp yesterday that elevated my estimation of him considerably. During some field goal drills, in which Jones was not involved, he sought out the wide receivers coach to discuss something at length from the previous set of drills that Jones hadn’t performed to his own satisfaction. This kid is a naturally gifted athlete, and when you combine that talent with his work ethic and desire to perform at the best of his abilities, you have something truly special. Let me reiterate what I’ve said in the past--Julio Jones is worth everything we traded to acquire him, and every penny we will pay him.
Tony Gonzalez, Justin Peelle and Michael Palmer are showing that we have every reason to be comfortable with our depth at tight end. Peelle and Palmer are getting a number of looks during practice and both are performing admirably.
Seventh round draft pick defensive end Cliff Matthews received a fair amount of praise from the coaching staff during special teams drills. Andrew Jackson, another seventh rounder, looked great during some reps at the end of practice. Jackson has been impressive during camp, showing versatility at both offensive tackle and offensive guard.
As we look toward the first preseason game against the Miami Dolphins in the Georgia Dome this Friday, and count down the days (33, to be precise) until week one against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, training camp has left me optimistic that the Falcons that will take the field this year will not even resemble the team that exited the playoffs so abruptly last season. This team appears confident and prepared, and we are in for an exciting season.