With Russell Athletic Training Camp only a few days away, we'll begin the march to camp with "Camp 101," a daily look at what any Falcons fan should know about the team heading into the all-important period before the season. Today, we look at the five best potential training camp battles, all of which will be settled on the field in August as Atlanta prepares to begin the 2012 campaign.
5) Backup Safety: Any position is an injury away from seeing an unseasoned player take the field. Backups are backups for a reason. However talented they may be, the starter in front of them has edged them out in some way. With Thomas DeCoud and William Moore firmly penciled in as starters for the Falcons at safety, there isn't an argument on who deserves those jobs, but their backups are anybody's guess.
The Falcons have five players behind DeCoud and Moore that are competing for the (likely) two backup safety spots. Returning for another year as a backup is Shann Schillinger, who saw little time on the field last season as a safety, but excelled on special teams. Suaesi Tuimaunei was a member of the practice squad last season as a rookie and is back with another season under his belt.
Two rookies can be found in the defensive backfield this year: Charles Mitchell and Chad Faulcon. Mitchell, a sixth-round draft pick, has the upper hand on remaining on the roster because he's a draft pick, but he's also had a solid offseason of work. He came away with at least one interception during June's minicamp and has a lot of potential on special teams. Faulcon joined the team as a college free agent and brings a hard-hitting and hard-working mentality to earning the job. Outside of a spectacular camp and preseason, he may be working for a spot on the practice squad.
The real wildcard in the safety competition is the recently-signed Chris Hope. A 10-year veteran, Hope won a Super Bowl with the Steelers and was a Pro Bowler in 2008. His veteran experience is helpful should Moore or DeCoud suffer injuries or a severe decline in play.
4) Final 2-3 Defensive Line Spots: During June's minicamp, head coach Mike Smith identified the defensive line as one of the most competitive position groups during training camp. He said he felt there would be around seven players in the rotation and they should all be considered starters since the position group is so heavily rotation-oriented to keep players fresh.
While the likes of John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux and to a lesser extent Kroy Biermann and Peria Jerry appear to have spots locked up, there are a number of players who will be competing heavily for one of the final seven spots.
Abraham, Ray Edwards, Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Biermann and Jerry are the key figures on the line. Using Smith's estimate that leaves one player remaining though there may be two because of some of the talent the Falcons find themselves with at the position.
Lawrence Sidbury, Cliff Matthews, Jonathan Massaquoi, Vance Walker and Travian Robertson all figure to be large parts of the battle for the final one or two defensive line spots. Sidbury carries the upper hand because of his experience and with four sacks last season, the potential to make an impact is already present. Matthews is an intriguing size prospect who didn't receive many chances as a rookie last season. Massaquoi and Robertson are both rookie draft picks and offer position-specific skill sets. Massaquoi could excel as a situational pass rusher and Robertson could be the big run-stuffing tackle every team wants as part of their rotation. Walker has performed well as a rotating backup for the past few seasons and his value is underrated.
3) Left Tackle: This battle in addition to being really important to the protection of QB Matt Ryan offers a battle of three different types of players. There's the former first-round pick who has battled injuries in his four-year career, Sam Baker. There's the solid and unflashy veteran who performed well in his first and only shot as a starter last season, Will Svitek. Finally, there's the incoming rookie, third-round pick Lamar Holmes.
Injuries took Baker out of the starting lineup last season and Svitek held things down admirably. Baker says he's as healthy as he's felt in years this offseason and is hoping for a season that removes all doubt that he's the franchise left tackle. Svitek hopes to do the same thing. Then there's Holmes who missed most of the OTAs during the offseason as he nursed an injury. The injury set his progression back some, but he'll enter camp with an opportunity. His third-round draft position means the franchise likely won't give up on him too quickly.
2) Returner: This recent post pretty much sums up everything that is going on with the kick and punt returners jobs. In a nutshell: Former Pro Bowler Eric Weems is no longer here. Harry Douglas, Dominique Franks, James Rodgers and Antone Smith appear to be the top candidates to assume the role.
Douglas seems to have the upper hand on the punt return job, a role he filled quite well as a rookie in 2008. Smith and his blazing speed could be a dark-horse to win the kick returner's job and Franks has performed the role in the past two preseasons.
1) Right Guard: Many, many eyes will be trained to the right side of the offensive line during training camp. If there was a sore spot last season for the Falcons, it was at right guard. Garrett Reynolds began the season as the starter before giving way to Joe Hawley, who took over after moving from center once Todd McClure returned to his position in the middle of the line.
Reynolds and Hawley are just two of the pieces in the right guard puzzle. The Falcons brought in veteran Vince Manuwai in the offseason to compete and help stabilize the line. They also spent their top pick on Peter Konz, a second-rounder out of Wisconsin. Konz was regarded as the best center in the nation last season, but the Falcons brass has said they will work him into the competition at guard.
The right guard battle will likely turn out to be the best one in camp and is clearly the most important of the above five.