Players report to training camp today, and begin practicing tomorrow. No time like the present to start handicapping some position battles, eh?
Throughout training camp, you will see the classic cagey veteran versus bright-eyed young player story line unfolding. That's true even on a grizzled team like the Falcons, a team that will return the majority of its starters from a year ago and doesn't have a ton of standout battles, at least compared to years past.
That doesn't mean there won't be positions worth watching and players who should bear your attention. If you'll join me after the jump, I'll break 'em down.
Akeem Dent vs. ????
It's not a battle any more, but you're going to want to watch Dent closely in the next month or so.
If he proves to be up to the task of manning middle linebacker, the Falcons will roll with Mike Peterson as his direct backup and enjoy having drafted a guy in the third round who was ready to start a year later. That will make them look pretty decent in the wake of Curtis Lofton moving on, regardless of how 5-0 plays in New Orleans.
If he falls flat on his face, however, the Falcons are in a bind. They can either install Dent regardless and hope he plays well in the regular season, turn to a 36-year-old Mike Peterson or go shopping. I'd say the latter is likely, so though it may not seem like it, Dent is competing against something other than thin air.
James Rodgers vs. Harry Douglas vs. Antone Smith vs. Dominique Franks
The battle for the returner jobs ought to be a good one. There's a ton of speed and elusiveness amongst these four players, and with the exception of Douglas, every single one of them will only have a role on special teams. There's a lot at stake here.
I think the Falcons will mix and match to fill the hole left by Eric Weems' departure this off-season. The easiest choices would be Harry Douglas as a kick returner and Dominique Franks as a punt returner, given that both are all but guaranteed roster spots already. Smith has home run potential and the tiny and elusive Rodgers perhaps even more so, however, so it would be a mistake to count either out.
I think ultimately you'll see Antone Smith handling kick returners and Franks handling punt returns, which will send Rodgers to the waiver wire or the practice squad. Douglas ought to have a decently prominent role in the offense this season, so the Falcons will probably elect to keep him to that.
The Interior Line
There's just too many players vying for a spot here to list.
The Falcons will turn the center and right guard starting jobs over to some combination of Todd McClure, Peter Konz, Vince Manuwai, Andrew Jackson, Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson. (And Joe Hawley. Oops.) Not all of those guys will be guaranteed roster spots and both positions are critically important for the offensive line, so it'll take one hell of a strong camp to come away with one of those.
My early hunch is that Konz starts at center and Manuwai starts at right guard, with McClure, Johnson and perhaps either Jackson/Reynolds rounding it out. Mark my words, however: This won't be an easy one to decide.
There's more than three, of course, but why should I deprive you of all your discussions? Kick it into another gear and share your own picks in the comments.