We’re nearly to training camp. As of today, we’re just two weeks away from July 26, when the Falcons open up their summer of practices and position battles in the sweltering sun.
As you know, this roster is pretty settled, with the team returning something along the lines of 19 out of 22 starters from the 2017 squad. That doesn’t mean that the remaining battles for starting jobs will be boring, or that players bitterly fighting (not literally) for roster spots won’t provide some intrigue. With that in mind, here are 14 battles to keep an eye on when camp does finally, mercifully open up.
Matt Schaub vs. Kurt Benkert
Schaub’s the heavy favorite here, but the Falcons may actually have something in Benkert, a project with a great arm and flashes of legitimately brilliant play in college. If Benkert picks things up quickly, there’s a small but non-zero chance he could knock off Schaub, and even those slim odds bear watching.
Luke McNitt vs. Daniel Marx vs. Ricky Ortiz
It’s a three man battle for the fullback position, featuring two undrafted free agents and a former undrafted free agent. All three are young players, and while McNitt’s my early pick, it’s the only legitimately wide open battle on this list. While fullbacks should have a relatively small role in this Falcons offense, adding another capable blocker to the ground game is key, and this one might go down to the roster cutting wire.
Calvin Ridley vs. Mohamed Sanu
Who is the true #2 in 2018? Sanu would seem the favorite, given his reliability and mastery of the offense in 2016 and 2017, but Ridley has sky-high potential and comes into the league as a very polished prospect. Both will get a ton of playing time and both will line up opposite Julio Jones at time, but Ridley has an opportunity to be the #2 in more than name if he can make a strong early push.
Marvin Hall vs. Russell Gage vs. Reggie Davis and so on
It’s very possible that the Falcons will only have one roster spot behind Julio Jones, Ridley, Sanu and Justin Hardy. If that’s the case, it’s going to be a free-for-all between all the young, interesting players the Falcons have assembled at the receiver position. Hall showed some promise a year ago, Davis shone in preseason 2017 (despite a couple of errors), and Gage was drafted this year with early special teams value very much in mind. Gage is the favorite as a recent, talked-up draft selection, but Hall and Davis aren’t going to go quietly, and one of them should make the roster outright if the Falcons elect to keep six receivers.
Eric Saubert vs. Logan Paulsen
Can Saubert block well? If the answer to that question is yes, after a 2017 where he received few opportunities to show anything, he might bump Paulsen down to the nominal third tight end. Saubert has loads of promise, and it would be very nice to see the Falcons trot out two tight ends who can actually consistently catch the football. It’ll all come down to how much improvement Saubert shows in his second summer.
Ty Sambrailo vs. Austin Pasztor vs. Matt Gono
Swing tackle matters. Keeping your starting tackles healthy for a full 16 game slate is no easy task, regardless of how durable Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder have been in the past, and Atlanta has been way too content to trot out the likes of Jeremy Trueblood in years past. Sambrailo was merely whelming in the role a year ago and should receive a legitimate challenge from a now-healthy Pasztor and intriguing UDFA Gono for the gig.
Brandon Fusco vs. Wes Schweitzer
The Falcons aren’t simply going to hand Fusco the job, though he’s the easy favorite to win right guard duties. Schweitzer did start 18 games a year ago with (again) whelming play and some quality stretches, and it’s conceivable that he could push hard for the gig again after doing so in 2016 and winning it outright in 2017. The Falcons are going to have a very capable veteran backup at the position, no matter who wins.
Sean Harlow vs. roster limits
We named Harlow as a player to watch in training camp for a couple of reasons. He has athleticism and drew enough interest from Atlanta to become their 2017 fourth round selection, for one thing, and he’s a legitimate candidate to get cut, for another. The Falcons have plenty of capable options on the interior of the offensive line, and Harlow will need to shine to hang on and hopefully make a push for a real role in 2019.
Jack Crawford vs. Terrell McClain vs. Deadrin Senat
The Falcons will rotate heavily at defensive tackle, but the nominal starter next to Grady Jarrett has not been decided yet. Crawford’s returning from an injury but offers some pass rushing chops, McClain has a track record as an early down asset, and Senat looks like he could become at least a solid starter in the NFL in relatively short order with his strength and history of collegiate production. It’ll be interesting to see if Senat can seize the job outright from his veteran colleagues, even if he’ll cede plenty of snaps to them along the way.
J’Terius Jones vs. Garrison Smith
The Falcons seem likely to carry nine defensive linemen, given their proclivity for rotation and how tight a four man rotation at defensive end and defensive tackle feels. What we don’t know is whether that player is going to be chiefly a DE (and here I’m thinking of Jones) or a DT (and here I’m thinking of Smith). There are other players in the mix here, but Smith’s a veteran with some upside and Jones stuck all last year after an impressive summer, and one of them seems likely to emerge as that ninth player.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson vs. Justin Bethel and roster limits
Wreh-Wilson was an asset in limited opportunities in 2017, but now the depth chart at corner is ridiculously deep. He’ll likely need to beat out Bethel, a special teams ace, or play so well that the Falcons seriously consider carrying six cornerbacks (plus Damontae Kazee, a nominal safety who can play some corner as well). It’s a tall order.
Damontae Kazee vs. Ron Parker
If you want to put three safeties on the field, are you throwing Kazee or Parker out there first? It may prove to be a moot question, with the Falcons electing to use both in turn, but it seems likelier that one player will emerge if Dan Quinn and Marquand Manuel want to tinker with some interesting defensive sets. Kazee flashed real physicality in 2017 and he has some legitimate coverage chops as a part-time cornerback, but Parker has been an average-to-above average starting safety for a while now, with a somewhat disappointing 2017 depressing his market value to the point where Atlanta was able to sign him on the cheap. I like Parker’s chances, but man is this group of defensive backs strong.
Isaiah Oliver vs. Brian Poole
Another battle that is a battle in name only, but still bears watching. Poole has been one of the team’s most effective blitzing defensive backs and a wonderfully physical corner over the past two seasons, and as good as Oliver promises to be early, the veteran isn’t simply going to roll over and cede the job. It’s possible, though not probable, that Poole fends Oliver off and the rookie comes off the bench early on.
The field of potential returners vs. themselves
There are too many players to list here who could be in the mix, but they include Hall, Davis, Gage, Justin Hardy, Oliver, and maybe even Parker. The fact that the Falcons haven’t chained themselves to a veteran option here means a surprising choice could emerge, and that player will ultimately likely be the fifth or sixth option at either wide receiver or cornerback. It truly seems wide open at the moment.
What other battles will you be watching?