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5 Falcons Training Camp Battles To Watch

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The best of the battles ahead.

Kevin C. Cox

#1: Jonathan Babineaux vs. Ra'Shede Hageman

On paper, this isn't even a battle. Hageman is a second round pick who is widely considered to be raw, while Babineaux is a cagey veteran and a long-time starter for these Falcons. Babineaux should blow the doors off this competition, if you can even call it that, so you may be wondering why I'm listing it first.

One simple reason, really. It's a hedge against Hageman being better sooner than any of us have predicted, and an acknowledgement that Babineaux's best role in his age 32 season might be rotating in as a disruptive presence. I've said all along that I expect Hageman to get a huge portion of the snaps this year, but I don't necessarily expect him to start right out of the gate. There's little question he has the talent to seize the job outright if he's ready, however.

They're vying for the same role, no question. Malliciah Goodman and (eventually) a healthy Corey Peters will be fighting for snaps up front, but the winner of Babineaux/Hageman is the likely starter opposite Tyson Jackson in 3-4 looks, and inside next to Paul Soliai/Jackson when the Falcons utilize four down linemen. I'll be watching Hageman with interest, even if I don't know that he'll be able to unseat Babs.

#2: Dwight Lowery vs. Dezmen Southward

The battle everyone will be watching closely. Lowery is a steady veteran presence, a sound tackler and a fundamentally solid former cornerback. He's the safe choice, the logical choice and the kind of veteran stopgap safety the Falcons have had some luck with before, i.e. James Sanders and Erik Coleman.

On the other hand, Southward would appear to be the future. He's athletically gifted and strong, but his Wisconsin college career was marked by a lack of big plays and questions about his fluidity in coverage, a concerning question for a free safety in Mike Nolan's system. As is the case with Hageman, this battle hinges on whether Southward can address those concerns and show his readiness early enough to mount a serious challenge against a well-rounded veteran safety whose only question marks have to do with injury.

I've got Lowery winning this one outright, but obviously I'm rooting hard for Southward to come out swinging.

#3: Joplo Bartu vs. Prince Shembo

It's fair to say the team's linebackers are not a strength. We all love Paul Worrilow, tackling machine of all tackling machines, but he's got a little ways to go before he's a truly great player. The other inside linebacker role will go to one of Bartu or Shembo, two intriguing young players who still have a lot to prove, as well.

Both Bartu and Shembo can and will kick outside when the Falcons are looking at three linebacker sets, which makes them potentially integral pieces in this defense. Bartu has the leg up in experience, showed an encouraging ability to move around the field in coverage and has underrated athleticism. Shembo, meanwhile, is a hard hitter and the coaching staff is talking up his ability. I fully anticipate this will be a legitimate battle that stretches well into August.

I'd anticipate Bartu wins, but look for Shembo have a sizable role either way.

#4: Javier Arenas vs. Robert McClain

It's possible that Josh Wilson or Ricardo Allen will be involved in this, but these are the two favorites in my mind.

McClain is the incumbent, with a terrific 2012 to recommend him and a mediocre 2013 to use against him. He's still young, he's familiar with the defense and he's a physical presence as the nickel cornerback, something Nolan's defense could always use. Arenas is smaller but faster, and the team appears ready to give him a shot to live up to his second round draft status.

Again, McClain is the easy favorite, but the team has shown signs they're not ready to commit to him at the position. Arenas has the best chance to knock him off.

#5: Devonta Freeman vs. Jacquizz Rodgers

This is a battle for third down duties with Steven Jackson all but locked in as the starter, but it's also a battle for carries behind Jackson in general.

Rodgers, of course, is no stranger to being the backup. He's an invaluable blocker, steady pass catcher and average or worse runner, though some of that could be pinned on the offensive line. Freeman looks like he'll be a useful runner right out of the box, but pass protection and pass catching are larger question marks.

I may be on an island here, but I think Rodgers will largely hold off Freeman in 2014, though I do think the rookie will get his fair share of carries before the season's out. Rodgers' edge in pass pro and his utility as a receiver make him a guy you can rely on for third downs, and so I think we've got at least one more season of Quizz in that role.

Honorable Mentions

Darius Johnson vs. Drew Davis

In my mind, the Falcons have Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester locked in for four spots, likely in that order. That leaves Johnson versus Davis for the fifth receiver gig.

I've got Davis winning outright, so long as he can get healthy in time. His special teams value and speed work in his favor, and Johnson would have to make real strides to unseat him. If the team keeps six receivers, this is probably moot, but I'm not convinced they will.

Gabe Carimi vs. Ryan Schraeder vs. Terren Jones vs. Mike Johnson vs. Lamar Holmes

Throw Harland Gunn in here, too. The Falcons' starting line is all but settled and I'd have to go ahead and give Konz a roster spot unless he implodes during training camp and preseason, so you're looking at these dudes contending for two-to-three open spots.

For what it's worth, I have Carimi, Holmes and, if they keep one more, Schraeder hanging on.

Share the camp battles you'll be watching and your predicted outcomes for the ones I've listed, if you please.