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Reflecting on the 2018 Falcons position battles

Looking back at the battles that defined the summer.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons had all but two or three of their starting spots figured out before we even started offseason workouts, and probably only had six or seven legitimate roster openings once the dust settled. For all that, there ended up being some compelling position battle drama this summer, even if nearly every single one of those battles ended anticlimactically.

While we wait for the practice squad to be populated and the Eagles game to kick off Thursday night, here’s a look back at those battles.

Fullback: Ricky Ortiz

The winner wasn’t even on the roster when the summer started. The Falcons signed UDFAs Daniel Marx out of Stanford and Luke McNitt out of Nebraska to compete for the job to start, and then wound up adding former Raven Ricky Ortiz a little later. The Falcons lost interest in Marx relatively quickly, which left McNitt and Ortiz. The former didn’t get much run in preseason, especially compared to Ortiz, and aside from a late exploratory Jalston Fowler signing that added a little intrigue, this didn’t wind up being much of a battle at all.

The Falcons were drawn to Ortiz’s athleticism, well-rounded game, and special teams value. Derrick Coleman was not a great fullback a year ago, to put it mildly, but he did excellent work on teams and the Falcons were always going to prioritize a player who could do the same. Ortiz will step right in to that role, and hopefully will be a more productive part of the offense than Coleman.

There’s still a chance the Falcons will change things over and get a bruiser like Jay Prosch, recently cut by the Texans, in for the role. But Ortiz earned this one and is a good fit for the offense, and it would be nice to have a young fullback who might stick at the position for a few years.

Returner: Justin Hardy

The Falcons threw a lot of options at the returner gig after seasons of Eric Weems and Andre Roberts, and it was legitimately unclear until the very last moment who was going to get the job. Justin Hardy got it more or less by default, when all was said and done.

Calvin Ridley looked very good on kick returns but will be a prominent part of the offense and can’t have helped himself with multiple drops in the third preseason game, albeit on offense. Ito Smith muffed multiple opportunities, as did Isaiah Oliver, and even Marvin Hall had a miscue or two. Hardy isn’t the fastest or most inspiring option, but with so many special teams upgrades in the offing this offseason, the Falcons decided they’d rather go with the most sure-handed player. Hardy’s quick and physical enough to spring some nice returns along the way, but at the very least, he shouldn’t hurt the Falcons on returns.

Right Guard: Brandon Fusco

This one should have been a yawn, but Wes Schweitzer has a habit of making every year’s right guard battle more interesting than it should be. In his rookie season he fought Chris Chester hard, last year he beat out Ben Garland, and this year he was one of the most improved players of the summer, per Dan Quinn.

Fusco did win out by playing extremely well in his preseason snaps, as expected, but the Falcons saw enough from Schweitzer to feel very comfortable with him as the team’s top guard reserve. Still, this one ended the way we expected it to.

Defensive Tackle: Terrell McClain

The reality is that Terrell McClain didn’t do anything spectacular to push ahead of Deadrin Senat and Jack Crawford for the starting job next to Grady Jarrett. The other reality is that there is going to be enough rotation at the position that McClain is little more than the de facto starter per the team’s first depth chart.

What McClain brings to the table is a proven track record of run-stopping ability, and the Falcons still have legitimate questions about their ability to slow down opposing backs as a defense. Senat looks like he’ll be excellent in that regard, as well, while Crawford should be in during obvious passing downs. Expect all three players to get starts this year.

Nickel Cornerback: Brian Poole/Damontae Kazee

The Falcons surely would have liked to see second rounder Isaiah Oliver seize the gig, though he would have been playing outside in nickel sets. Instead, Oliver largely scuffled this summer, and it looks like some combination of Brian Poole and Damontae Kazee will be playing nickel corner for the foreseeable future. Oliver will hopefully come on later in the season and play his way into a role, but for now the Falcons are still rock solid with a Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Poole/Kazee trio on the field.