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Falcons camp battles worth watching on defense

How will things shake out for Atlanta, based on what we’re seeing from camp thus far?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta has been making stew with expired ingredients for far too long when it comes to this defense. For years now, a handful of elite players and quality stopgaps have struggled to make it work alongside players no longer in their primes and options who just haven’t been able to play at a high level.

That appears to be changing this year, with big-time additions and draft capital alike helping to bolster both the starting lineup and depth for a team in need of talent and stability on that side of the ball. Outside of outside linebacker, where I’d expect the team to be pretty well set with their rotation, there’s genuine competition for deep roles across the roster. Starting spots seem more well-defined, and better stocked than in years past, meaning Atlanta’s in genuinely good shape on both sides of the ball from our vantage point here in August.

Here’s a look at the depth battles that have mattered thus far, with a surprise second retirement factoring in to a suddenly more interesting defensive line competition.

DL Depth: Timothy Horne, Joe Gaziano, Justin Ellis, LaCale London, Carlos Davis

You know Grady Jarrett, David Onyemata, Calais Campbell, and Ta’Quon Graham are locked into major roles, and Zach Harrison has a roster spot and real potential. That leaves some limited spots—maybe just the one—available to a handful of players vying for those roles.

There are some early frontrunners there.

Gaziano and Horne were likely competing for maybe a single role with the Falcons when Eddie Goldman was pushing for a roster spot, but with him out of the picture there may be room for both. Both have had some up-and-down efforts in camp thus far, but Gaziano has been a rock solid reserve in the past for the Chargers and Horne held up well in an extended opportunity in his rookie season. The Falcons may want to add more depth here, but right now it looks like Gaziano and Horne are competing with one another for a spot unless the team is planning to carry both. Ellis and Davis are doing enough with their limited chances thus far to at least stay in the conversation.

ILB5/Special Teams Help: Tae Davis, Mike Jones Jr., Andre Smith

Nate Landman’s job security comes as a mild surprise to me, but it seems like the Falcons plan to carry Mykal Walker and Landman behind Kaden Elliss and Troy Andersen at the moment. If there’s room for a fifth inside linebacker on this roster, it’s going to be for a player who is a major contributor on special teams.

The three candidates for that role, if it exists, are Davis, Jones, and Smith, all of whom have locked down that deep reserve/special teams help role elsewhere in the past. SI’s Daniel Flick identifies Davis as the standout of that bunch so far, and given the caliber of his work for the Browns last year, he’d be my favorite for a roster spot today.

CB5/6: Mike Hughes, Darren Hall, Tre Flowers, Cornell Armstrong, Natrone Brooks

Dee Alford’s emergence from CFL signing to strong candidate for nickel corner is admirable, and I would go ahead and pencil him into a roster spot. With that in mind, and with A.J. Terrell, Jeff Okudah, and impressive rookie Clark Phillips III locked in, we’re talking about one or two spots for five players to fight over.

Hughes’ potential value as a returner and ability to play inside and outside—even with his recent scuffles—make him a strong candidate for a spot. While Flowers and Armstrong have had splash plays in camp, his most significant competition may very well be 2021 draft pick Hall, who has had trickier moments in 1-on-1s but has also shown the knack for making plays on the ball that made him so intriguing for Atlanta coming out of college.

Hall was benched down the stretch last year and lost significant playing time to Armstrong, but this is a new coaching staff on the defensive side of the ball and he has an opportunity to make a good impression. If it’s just five players I’d expect Hughes to grab that last spot, but if the team is willing to carry six corners, Hall appears to be the strongest contender for it at the moment.

S4: Micah Abernathy, DeMarcco Hellams

There are other contenders, but this appears to be a two-man battle. Abernathy has special teams experience and is running ahead of Hellams at the moment in practice, and his experience may well give him a decisive leg up. Hellams is a big hitter who was excellent on teams in college, however, and he’s also a 2023 draft pick for the organization. With Jaylinn Hawkins sewing up the third safety role as expected, there’s likely only room for one player on the final roster. I expect Hellams to make up enough ground to grab that spot, so long as he can show out in preseason action.