The Falcons have more than a couple of veterans who have hung on to roster spots, sometimes for years, that some fans feel they do not deserve.
In some cases, that's a fairly recent phenomenon. Stephen Nicholas has been considered a solid player for a long time, but the fans turned on him viciously last year, in the midst of a campaign that could be described as average. Nicholas is a great guy and an appreciated Falcon, but it's not tough to guess that his hold on his starting job is more tenuous this season.
Then there are guys like Robert James and Antone Smith, players who have quietly played well on special teams but haven't done much else to engender the faith of fans. Watching exciting young UDFAs come through and get cut in favor of these guys has made them pariahs for some, fairly or no.
The point is, there are plenty of Falcons who aren't universally beloved and have cause to look over their shoulders. The Falcons brought in a lot of young talent this off-season to push hard for roster spots, and while all these guys could return, it's not hard to envision a scenario in which several are searching for jobs when the season opens.
These are the three Falcons who need to look out for competition coming in 2013.
In many ways, Nicholas is both the biggest name on this list and the most depressing. The former fourth-rounder battled long odds and some tragic situations in his family life to become a frequent starter in the 2009 campaign, rolling out with the starting lineup in 47 games over the last four seasons.
The problem for Nicholas is that he wasn't particularly impressive in 2012. The superficial stats—97 tackles, two sacks, four pass deflections, an interception—attest to a steady presence in the linebacking corps, and there's no denying that Nicholas has a knack for being around the ball. The problem is that while he's pretty good against the run, he's hit or miss in coverage. He also just turned 30 years old, and there have been some grumblings that the Falcons don't really need a 30-year-old run-stopping linebacker when the pass is what keeps killing this team's defense, especially in the post-season.
The competition here doesn't look incredibly strong, and given the relatively reasonable contract Nicholas is playing under, you would think that at worst he'd be a part-time starter. If Robert James continues to stick around and show (unbelievably) improvement, Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu step up and Patrick Schiller and Nick Clancy push for roster spots, the Falcons may want to commit to young, athletic guys across the board. It would be a stretch for any of those guys to start, so that might be the biggest argument in favor of Nicholas.
I'd give him a better-than-50% chance to stay on as at least a part-time starter, but for the first time in recent memory, Nicholas looks vulnerable.
Smith's value has primarily come on special teams. He's not a realistic candidate to return kicks or punts, however, and he offers very little as a runner.
That's left the door open for the Falcons' stable of young backs. Josh Vaughan looks like a vintage Michael Turner-Lite, Donald Russell has showed impressive hands and Ronnie Wingo rattled off some nice runs in his preseason debut. That's three legitimate challengers for the fourth running back gig outside of Smith.
I honestly think Smith's in real trouble here. The Falcons prize versatility, and any one of these guys could probably do a decent job on special teams and offer more as a runner and receiver than Smith.
Obvious? Yes. Necessary? Yes.
Peria Jerry may have turned out to be a solid starter, but the injury kinda ruined that one. Now he's just an average sort of guy holding down a spot until someone better comes along and knocks him off.
Last year, Jerry got a lot of snaps thanks to Corey Peters' absence, and he was perfectly fine, despite the invective hurled his way because he is a rather large draft bust. With Peters healthy, Cliff Matthews pulling DT duty and Jonathan Babineaux doing what he always does, Jerry's role will be diminished.
Or maybe he won't have a role at all. Travian Robertson is a burgeoning talent at defensive tackle, a potent combination of strength and burst who could eventually wind up having a significant role. Adam Replogle looked pretty good in his limited duty, and Micanor Regis is still around. If you can stock your spots after Peters and Babs with two or three guys who have talent and make virtually no money, it doesn't make a lot of sense to carry Jerry around.
Do you agree with those choices? Who would you add to the list?