Russell Athletic Atlanta Falcons Training Camp is where positions are won. For many players, they're not guaranteed anything and must earn every snap. One way to earn some snaps during the regular season is to give your coach a reason to do so by performing in training camp. This year's training camp, according to head coach Mike Smith, will feature the kind of competition that will rival what the roster experienced during the franchise-altering first Smith season in 2008.
Key starting positions like quarterbacks are not in question, but this season there are some important positions that will be won or lost in training camp. In some cases the competition features rookiea, vying for their first NFL job, while others feature players who have waited patiently in the wings for their shot.
These are the five most compelling training camp battles that the Falcons and the coaching staff will all be watching this year.
5. No. 4 and No. 5 Wide Receivers: This battle will feature the two players that occupied these positions last season. Kevin Cone and Drew Davis return this year at wide receiver for the Falcons and while there are other players in camp to compete, these two look like the front runners. This battle will come down to who shines the most with their wide receiver reps when they get their shots in games and practices. These final two wide receiver positions will also fill critical roles on special teams, an area Davis and Cone excelled at last season.
4. Backup Safeties: While the Falcons are set up with their Pro Bowl safeties in William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, the backup situation behind them isn't so clear. Three-year veteran Shann Schillinger returns after missing last season with an injury and Charles Mitchell, a 2012 draft pick, got some experience last year. The Falcons clearly want competition at this backup spot so they drafted two rookies this year, seventh-round picks Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael. College free agent Troy Sanders is also in camp to compete. As is the case for most of the depth positions on the roster, the winners of these two backup positions will be the players that can hold their own at their position as well as on special teams. Motta and Ishmael are intriguing options for the Falcons this season after having highly productive college careers. Don't discount the wildcard in this battle: Dominique Franks. Although he's a cornerback, he did some cross training last year at safety.
3. Return Man: This is a battle that will mostly play out in the preseason's games, but it looks like it will shape up to be critical. There's a good chance the Falcons would like to see more production out of the returners and second-round pick Robert Alford has a good shot at winning one or both return jobs. Jacquizz Rodgers was the team's kick returner last year and Franks filled the role of punt returner, but if Alford can show more energy and production than either of them, he's got a great shot to win the job.
2. Cornerback: Offseason moves left the Falcons with two starting cornerbacks in Asante Samuel and Robert McClain and little more. Then the draft came and the Falcons used their top two draft picks selecting corners Desmond Trufant and Alford. One of those two looks likely to start opposite Samuel on the outside with McClain manning the slot cornerback position. Alford and Trufant figure to occupy much of the training camp battle at the position and head coach Mike Smith said repeatedly during the offseason that both young players will get plenty of reps to prove themselves. Peyton Thompson, who spent last season on the practice squad, Saeed Lee, Terrence Johnson and Franks will also be competing for those final cornerback spots after Samuel and McClain. Last season the Falcons entered the regular season with five corners.
1. Right Tackle: Perhaps the most widely-discussed camp battle this season is at right tackle where Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes figure to be the primary contestants. A third-round pick last season Lamar Holmes didn't see a ton of action in 2012, but he's highly regarded among the coaching staff. Johnson is also a third-round pick, from 2010, and served as the team's primary tackle backup last season as well as the jumbo tight end in many goal line formations. Throughout the offseason Johnson got a lot of first-team reps and if there's a front runner, it's him, though slightly. The Falcons also have college free agents Alec Savoie, Ryan Schraeder and Terren Jones in camp to round out the competition. After their cuts to the 53-man roster last year, Atlanta carried four offensive tackles, including Johnson and Holmes.