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Falcons Training Camp Preview: Center

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The center of our attention in this training camp preview.

US PRESSWIRE

We come to center, that key cog of the offensive line and one of the team's great weaknesses in 2013. The Falcons will be hoping and praying that Joe Hawley can transcend his performance in seven 2013 starts, most of them decent, and that Peter Konz can salvage his career before he finds himself out of Atlanta.

More to the point, they're hoping center will be a relative strength so the offense can excel again. You have to question Baker's health and whether Jake Matthews will have some rookie hiccups, but there's no spot on this line that has more questions centered on talent than...well, center.

Let's hop to the breakdown.

The Players

Joe Hawley - 53 games, 19 starts

The early favorite for the starting gig, Hawley has followed an odd path here, dabbling at center and guard in recent years while starting zero games in 2010 and 2012 and a combined 19 in 2011 and 2013. He's not a dominant blocker, but he's improved his technique by leaps and bounds, he plays hard and he's got amazing flopping skills. Given that he's still just 25 and improving, this could be his job for a while.

Peter Konz - 32 games, 25 starts

Konz is the second round pick who has fallen rapidly from grace, struggling at both center and guard. The 24-year-old has been working to add strength this offseason, but he'll need to have shown drastic improvement to even think about challenging Hawley. His most likely role is backup center and guard, and if he's taken a step forward, he should be useful enough there.

James Stone - Rookie

The undrafted free agent has shown glimmers of real talent already and is an early fan favorite at a position that doesn't look stacked, but he's going to have a hell of a time beating out either Hawley or Konz for a job. He's likely ticketed for the 2014 practice squad, with a chance to push for a spot next offseason.

What's Changed

The answer is not much. Hawley should keep the starting job he wrested away from Konz last year, while Konz returns as the likely backup. Stone's the only new face here, and as I noted above, it's an uphill battle for him right now.

The Big Question

Will this position be a strength? The Falcons were accustomed to the reliable Todd McClure at center before last season, and Konz was a wreck taking over for him. Hawley was a tick above average after taking the job, but no one's sure whether he'll be any better than that going forward, and it was only seven starts. If Hawley can't get it done, it's probably back to Konz, and it's tough to have an enormous amount of faith in him.

Given that the Falcons appear at least reasonably strong at 3-4 positions along the line—depending mostly on how you feel about Sam Baker—center is a matter of some urgency. Let's hope we're reassured early.

Best Case Scenario

Hawley is terrific, Konz proves to be a valuable backup capable of getting snaps at a couple of positions if injury strikes and the Falcons have a surprisingly effective line in general. Hawley treats us to at least one of his epic flops while staring deeply, beardily into our souls.

Worst Case Scenario

Hawley stumbles, Konz can't do any better and center becomes a gaping black hole on an otherwise decent line, making running up the middle difficult and dooming Matt Ryan to another pressure-filled season.

Summary

There are very real questions here, but the Falcons at least have two quality young options with an intriguing UDFA lurking. There are no guarantees, but if Hawley can be merely average the Falcons will be in much better shape than they were just a season ago.