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Training camp competitions heat up for the Falcons

At cornerback, linebacker, and along the offensive line, things are getting interesting.

NFL: DEC 29 Falcons at Buccaneers Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When training camp is closed to the public and you have zero preseason games, every bit of information that comes out of Flowery Branch feels weightier than usual.

Maybe we’re in danger of taking too much out of the reports we are getting second hand, but it seems like in recent days we’re getting a better sense of how camp battles are proceeding. Given that as of today there are just three weeks (!) left until the start of the regular season, that’s the way things ought to be proceeding anyways. Let’s break down three position groups where things are either getting more lively or becoming more clear per reports.

Offensive line

I don’t know if it’s a case of things heating up or clarifying here. In recent days, we’ve seen Justin McCray take snaps as the backup center, which sets him up as a super sub (and may unfortunately drive John Wetzel back off the squad) given that he’s also played guard and tackle in the past. We’ve also seen James Carpenter and Matt Hennessy getting the lion’s share of left guard reps as the Falcons have at least temporarily shifted Matt Gono to left tackle during practices.

Yesterday, Eric Robinson predicted Matt Gono would be the starter at left guard, something that I think most of the staff is rooting for. We’ve never claimed to be an unbiased lot. I thought Eric’s reasoning was incredibly sound, given that only Hennessy truly thriving in his practice reps is a compelling reason not to give a capable young player a shot at starting.

There’s still time for that to happen, but Quinn’s comments indicate that they’re looking at Gono’s positional versatility, which is not something you typically care about when you’re planning to start that player. I’m not going to be thrilled if Carpenter wins that left guard job again, but Gono is still a logical choice at swing tackle and if Hennessy wins out, I’ll still be happy. We’ll see how the team divvies up practice reps from here on out.

Linebacker

This is all about Mykal Walker. The rookie from Fresno State was a compelling draft pick because of his athleticism, positional versatility (he also played defensive end in college), and evident physicality. The fact that he’s been making plays on the ball throughout training camp makes it clear that he’s hungry to play, and he has the talent to make an impact for this team down the line.

How far down the line, though? Perhaps not all that far.

A handful of snaps with the starters isn’t significant, per se, and Foye Oluokun is fully expected to be the starter next to Deion Jones heading into the season. Walker’s ability to shine as a rookie in a weird summer might vault him up the depth chart, however, and give him an opportunity to see the field on early downs when the Falcons will at least mull using three linebackers. If he keeps this up, it wouldn’t be stunning to see him become the de facto #3 guy in this group, both because there isn’t a ton of competition and because he appears to be earning those looks.

Cornerback

As is the case with the two position groups I mentioned already, this isn’t a settled thing just yet. It is interesting that so far, the players I thought would be starting Week 1 are...well, effectively starting.

A.J. Terrell has had a couple of ups and downs—Vaughn McClure at ESPN reported he got burnt by Olamide Zaccheaus today—but he’s more than held his own against Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley and has effectively erased any questions about whether his excellent virtual work earlier this offseason would translate to the practice field. Darqueze Dennard signed to be a starter, is one of the league’s more effective nickel corners, and is obviously locking down that role right now.

That just left the Isaiah Oliver/Kendall Sheffield battle, and right now it’s Oliver running with the starters. Jason Butt did note that Sheffield is still seemingly viewed as a starter by the coaching staff, but I keep coming back to Raheem Morris and his obvious fondness for Oliver and Sheffield working his way back from an injury as reasons to think the former Colorado cornerback is going to start the season with Terrell and Dennard. The team loved him when they drafted him, given his length and physicality, and I still think he’ll keep this edge and start Week 1. It’s just a question of whether he thrives or flails with a capable player like Sheffield right behind him on the depth chart.