We can—and did—talk about camp battles before camp began. The rubber really meets the road when camp kicks off and we get to see how many of our assumptions about what is and isn’t a camp battle actually put to the test, as we have through the first few days.
Based on what I’m reading and hearing, here are the camp battles that feature genuine competition and are worth monitoring as the weeks grind on. You can get much more detail on these from Kevin Knight, Adnan Ikic, and Will McFadden because they’re on the ground in Flowery Branch, so be sure to watch and read their reports.
Today, we’ll check in on offense and five battles we’ll be watching as preseason kicks off next week. Tomorrow, we’ll turn our focus to the defense, where a recent spate of roster moves have upended some early assumptions.
Before we start, though, let’s acknowledge that the offensive starters seem pretty settled. Only the left guard job is truly up for grabs, and even the immediate depth behind most starters is all but set in stone. Taylor Heinicke is backing up Desmond Ridder, Mack Hollins and Scotty Miller seem essentially guaranteed to be WR2 and WR3 minus a signing, and so forth. The further down the depth chart you go, the more significant the competition is on offense. The possible exception might be tight end and fullback, where Adnan Ikic tells me MyCole Pruitt and Keith Smith don’t really appear to be facing much competition from John FitzPatrick and Clint Ratkovich, at least so far.
RB4: Carlos Washington and Godwin Igwebuike
Heating up by virtue of an addition. Washington was the only RB4 candidate on the roster for the early days of camp and looked good as a runner, as our Adnan Ikic chronicled from the Georgia heat.
Great run from Carlos Washington Jr. through the ride side against the 2s. Would have been a massive chunk gain in a real game.— Adnan Ikic (@SayWhichWay) July 26, 2023
Washington fits this team’s ethos as a runner, too, given that he’s a tough, physical runner with enough speed to take advantage of effective blocking. If there was an injury, he’d seem to be a nice fit to step into a limited role, potentially setting him up for that fourth running back gig.
Igwebuike potentially complicates things. A speedy back with solid size, he has been a decent runner in very limited opportunities in the NFL, but his bread and butter has been returns. Last year, he fielded 11 kick returns for the Seahawks and averaged 28 yards per return, which means he’ll quickly insert himself into an unsettled competition in Atlanta for a returner role. The lack of punt return experience might not work in his favor, however, given that Cordarrelle Patterson figures to still field some kick returns.
This one will come down to the more impressive player in preseason, potentially, as well as the team’s roster-building priorities. The player who loses out should be a strong practice squad candidate—or, I suppose, the team may only carry three backs—but we’re not close to knowing who that will be just yet. My money is on Washington, even so.
WR5: Frank Darby, Penny Hart, Xavier Malone, Keilahn Harris, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Chris Blair, Slade Bolden
As I see it, four receivers are pretty well set: Drake London, Mack Hollins, Scotty Miller, and KhaDarel Hodge, with the latter potentially facing some challenges for special teams work but likely to come out on top. That likely leaves a single roster spot up for grabs for seven players.
It’s all guesswork at this early stage of camp, but the players I’d keep an eye on are Hart, Darby, Malone, and Harris. Hart is in play as a returner, Darby is the most familiar with the offense and carries special teams value, and Malone and Harris are intriguing UDFAs who are also inserting themselves in the punt returner competition. Unless Mike Hughes wins that role, it seems likely the WR5 will also be the punt returner, making those reps in training camp and preseason pretty crucial.
It seems likely to be Hart at the moment given his experience as a returner and fine work as a receiver, but as Kevin Knight wrote, I wouldn’t rule out Malone given the way he’s flashed in the early going.
Bergeron: good, no complaints, but there's no pads— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) July 30, 2023
Final WR spot would probably go to Penny Hart today based on usage, but I think Xavier Malone has been the most impressive
Malone has been playing a hybrid EDGE/SAM role thus far
LG: Matt Hennessy and Matthew Bergeron
Hennessy is the favorite, per the coaching staff, but his short-term injury gives the rookie a chance to impress. The Falcons drafted him in the second round because they loved his potential at guard, a position he did not really spend time in during his college career, but he’s taking to the position switch well and has elite run blocking potential for a team that loves to run.
Much here depends on how quickly Hennessy works his way back, as an extended absence would give Bergeron a lot of runway to seize a job I believe he’s very capable of taking. If Hennessy is back soon and gets his extended opportunity, the team’s stated appreciation for his skill and desire not to rush Bergeron likely means he’ll win it.
Still, Bergeron is already showing well in training camp, so don’t sleep on his chances if the team gives him a legitimate shot to win the role. We’ll see if Hennessy is truly day-to-day and back this week, or if Bergeron lines up for the first start of preseason at left guard.
OL8/9: Ethan Greenidge, Ryan Neuzil, Jovaughn Gwyn, Josh Miles, Tyler Vrabel, Barry Wesley, Kyle Hinton, Jonotthan Harrison
I remain convinced that Bergeron or Hennessy has one reserve role and Jalen Mayfield another, though a poor summer from the latter could certainly knock him out of the running. That leaves one or two spots open to a pretty interesting group of options.
The problem right now is that no one appears to be standing out in the early going to Adnan and the team, which might leave us concerned about the team’s potential depth. Greenidge and Wesley offer the most versatility, having played four out of five positions on the line at one point or another in their career, while Neuzil is a coaching staff favorite with positional versatility on the inside. I would consider those three to be the most likely to grab an eighth spot, while everyone else is in play for a ninth.
This team needs a capable reserve tackle pretty badly, so if that’s not one of Mayfield, Greenidge, or Wesley, they’re likely going to need to look outside of the organization. I’d expect preseason pecking order and performance to give us a lot more clarity about how that logjam for one or two spots is going to go.