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2019 Falcons training camp roundup: The battles we want to watch

All the most important training camp battles ahead, with early predictions and stakes.

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The battles often define training camp. There’s something thrilled and refreshing about seeing the team’s best players (and your favorites) out there practicing after an interminable offseason, but those pitched fights for starting jobs and roster spots are the most rewarding thing about the practices and the otherwise low-quality preseason games.

Even in a year where the roster seems pretty well-settled, there are plenty of battles worth monitoring. We’ve been running those downs in recent weeks, and I’m sharing them here along with quick thoughts on how I think they’ll turn out.

Tomorrow it all begins again. Give this a read and rest up.

Key battles

Backup quarterback

It’s still Matt Schaub’s job to lose, but his contract situation is more tenuous than it was in years past, and Kurt Benkert is an interesting player entering his second season in Atlanta. I expect Schaub to wring one more year out of the Falcons as Matt Ryan’s backup, but look for Benkert to push hard and hopefully take the job in 2020.

Third running back

We’re assuming Ito Smith is locked in as the direct backup, so it’s between bruisers Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison. The latter is the pick for Dirk Koetter, based on his draft status, and is very likely to win. Keep in mind that Hill is a veteran who ran well late in the season, though, and Ollison is brand new, which should at least mean a pitched battle.

Starting guards

Essentially, the Falcons have four players competing for two starting gigs, and if iron sharpens iron things are gonna be awfully sharp. Rookie Chris Lindstrom, veteran free agent signings James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, and incumbent Wes Schweitzer all are interesting players. Lindstrom is a virtual lock for one spot and I think Carpenter beats out Brown this year, but at least this team will have great depth regardless of how things shake out.

Final wide receiver spot

If the Falcons carry six guys at receiver, they’ll have a half dozen options for the spot. That includes former practice squad players like Devin Gray, fresh faces like Olamide Zacchaeus, and versatile late pick Marcus Green. I expect Green to land that job as a de facto sixth receiver, returner, and fourth or fifth running back.

Third tight end

The Falcons have a Pro Bowler as a starter in Austin Hooper and a compelling backup with deep ties to the offensive coaching staff in Luke Stocker. Beyond that, it’s Eric Saubert, Logan Paulsen, and Alex Gray and Jaeden Graham competing for 1-2 spots. Bet heavily on Saubert and/or Paulsen.

Fourth defensive tackle

We’re assuming that Grady Jarrett, Jack Crawford, and Deadrin Senat are locked into spots. The Falcons have a lot of competitors for a presumed fourth (and fifth) gig, but free agent signing Tyeler Davison is the virtual slam dunk choice if he’s healthy all summer.

Third linebacker job

Is Foye Oluokun the obvious favorite here, considering he’s competed with Duke Riley and his two years of struggles? Yes. Could Riley put it all together in his third year and surprise everyone? Also yes, and I hope he does so the Falcons can be as strong as possible at linebacker.

Final linebacker gig

Kemal Ishmael is the incumbent here, and he’s been such a vital special teamer for such a long time that he’s the obvious favorite again. The biggest note of caution with that is that Keith Armstrong is no longer here, and Jermaine Grace has special teams experience and ability of his own. Rookie Tre’ Crawford was the talk of rookie minicamp, and should at least make things interesting.

Kick and punt returner

There’s a legitimate possibility that we’ll have one guy handling both returner jobs, which would mean that both Kenjon Barner and Marcus Green wouldn’t make the roster. Right now, I’d expect Green to get that job, given his wheels, talent, and the team snapping him up late in the draft when they typically target key special teamers like Russell Gage and Eric Saubert.