Training camp returns after a day off, and that means we need to start talking about position battles in earnest. We are, after all, not that far away from the first preseason game.
With the help of erstwhile reporter Jeanna Thomas, I have cobbled together thoughts on five key position battles. I'm using a broad definition of the positions and I'm not just limiting this to one-on-one battles, so that we may have a more interesting and fruitful discussion.
Please give this a read and chime in with your predictions below, if you would.
The Running Back Brouhaha
With Steven Jackson out until perhaps the first week of the regular season, the battle for carries behind him heats up. There's an outside chance, if Jackson's hamstring doesn't heal well, that whoever wins this particular battle will be starting in the first week of the season.
Jeanna and others have been particularly impressed by Devonta Freeman, who has shown good hands, excellent vision and terrific speed thus far. Jacquizz Rodgers is his primary competition, and while it seems like Freeman will be the more effective runner right off the bat, there's no questions that Rodgers' catching ability and blocking give him a leg up on the rookie. Antone Smith and to a lesser extent Josh Vaughan will be trying to carve out roles behind those two, but there's little question the battle is between Freeman and Quizz for starter/primary backup duties. We'll see what happens with S-Jax, but this is still an important battle.
The Swing Tackle Duel
Terren Jones showed up in much better shape, but hasn't impressed thus far. Mike Johnson has been on the wrong end of some tough-love coaching and just hasn't looked all that sharp. That would appear to leave Ryan Schraeder and Lamar Holmes competing for swing tackles duties behind obvious starters Sam Baker and Jake Matthews.
To be clear, I'm not completely ruling out Johnson, and maybe Gabe Carimi should be in this conversation. But if you're looking at performance and what happened a year ago, it's gotta be one of the two. In my eyes, Schraeder's winning big early.
He looks like he's in fantastic shape, I've watched him take guys to the ground and he certainly didn't look any worse than any other lineman once the pads went on, per multiple sources. Holmes has flashed hot and cold and still has legitimate talent, but he's going to have to prove his worth in preseason. The Falcons will probably be reluctant to cut ties with their former third round pick, but that doesn't mean Schraeder can't beat him out for a bigger role.
The Outside Linebacker Fisticuffs
This is one where the favorites are winning. When the Falcons are looking at 3-4 sets and perhaps in other situations, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi are the easy favorites.
That's partly due to both players looking good early, but it's also due to a lack of real options. Guys like Stansly Maponga, Tyler Starr and even Jacques Smith have talent but aren't really in the mix to start, and both Maponga and Starr have largely failed to impress early. The easy call is Mass and Duff Man, and I'm going to stick to it.
While I'm not dedicating a separate blurb to it, there's little doubt in my mind that Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu are the frontrunners for starting spots inside, with Prince Shembo likely to rotate in. Pat Angerer and Marquis Spruill both have shown flashes early, which makes Angerer's injury all the more unfortunate.
The Cornerback Kerfluffle
If you want to see me waffle, ask me about nickel cornerback. I'll give you three answers over the next three weeks, if history's my guide.
I couldn't see anyone knocking off Robert McClain earlier this offseason, but then the Falcons went out and did a bunch of things that indicated they didn't have a ton of faith in the team's nickel over the last two season, such as signing him to a cheap one-year tender and bringing aboard multiple corners. Then I thought Javier Arenas and his special teams value would help him win out, plus the fact that he's a Scott Pioli guy. Then I saw and heard about Josh Wilson impressing everyone, and now I have to lean toward Wilson. About the only thing I'm confident in is that Ricardo Allen probably won't win the job.
Wilson has been the best so far and thus has the biggest leg up, but Mike Smith promised one start for each of Arenas, McClain and JW. There's ample time for one guy to separate from the pack, but right now, it's Wilson.
The Safety Dance-Off
You've got the cagey veteran versus the promising rookie, and the cagey veteran is likely to stride briskly away with the job.
Lowery has looked healthy and competent throughout the first five days of camp, while Southward is getting extra coaching as he adjusts to life with the Falcons. There's just a wide gulf between a healthy Lowery, who has been a fairly successful cornerback and safety when he's not concussed, and a player like Southward who has noticeably raw facets to his game and will need to polish them up before he's trusted in coverage. Kemal Ishmael and Southward are the obvious backups, though.
Your thoughts on these and other camp battles?