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 toughest decisions for the Falcons coaching staff to make in camp. Some of these decisions involve heated camp battles while others are all about the numbers game in the NFL. With only 53 roster spots available, they will have to be judicious in how they spread their players out across the position groups.
5) Veteran or rookie at backup safety: The Falcons' starting safeties are pretty solidified with Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. After those two, things are a little cloudy. Shann Schillinger enters his third season with the team, and last season he saw action in all 16 games and recorded seven tackles. Most of his contributions came on special teams and his value is linked to his performance there. The Falcons drafted Charles Mitchell this season and he's a tough player with a lot of experience on special teams as well. Mitchell had a good offseason of practices and it's unlikely he will be a player that can be hidden on the practice squad. Veteran Chris Hope was signed as well and he brings a lot of veteran experience to the position. He's started a lot of games in the NFL and is a Super Bowl champion, as well. College free agent Chad Faulcon is an intriguing player with his mix of speed and explosive tackling ability. He may be a practice squad addition that can use that time to developing into an NFL-caliber player.
4) The total number of backs: Including the fullback, last season the Falcons carried five backs. It's a safe bet to say Michael Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling will be on the roster when training camp ends. The real decisions will come at fullback between Mike Cox and rookie Bradie Ewing. Cox filled in admirably last season when starter Ovie Mughelli went down. He's a predominately block-first option in the backfield. Ewing is a draft pick and was regarded as the best fullback in the draft. In addition to excellent blocking, Ewing, according to head coach Mike Smith, has better hands than many realize. After the top three running backs the decision will come down to Antone Smith, who was on the roster last season, Dimitri Nance and college free agent Robbie Frey. Smith brings special teams experience and has a chance to win the kick returner's job. Nance has managed to stick around in the NFL for a few years and is in his second camp with the Falcons. Frey is a player few have heard of, but showed some promise during the offseason with deceptive speed and quickness.
3) Five or six wide receivers: Last year the Falcons carried five wide receivers in the season. The top three are strong with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas. Kerry Meier appears ready to step into the versatile backup role and offers considerable contributions as a coverage player on special teams. After those four things are wide open. The first decision will be to carry five or six wide receivers and once that is made, they have seven players to choose from. Returning Falcons Kevin Cone and Drew Davis might have an edge there (Cone found himself on the active roster for the final game of the season), but a player like James Rodgers, who has a shot to win the returner's job, could make things interesting.
2) How to handle the top three CBs: It's safe to say the Falcons have a nice problem by trying to figure out how to get Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes and Asante Samuel on the field at the same time. Early indications are that Grimes will man one outside corner position and Robinson will hold down the other. When three corners are needed, Robinson will slide to the slot and Samuel will play the outside. As camp progresses, a battle may begin to brew between Robinson and Samuel for that full-time outside corner position. It may not be a completely necessary battle since defensive coordinator Mike Nolan could use three corners on the field a large portion of the time. Regardless, making sure the best two corners are out on the field at a given time is critical.
1) How many linemen to carry: Decisions on the lines on both sides of the ball will be very important. As it stands right now, simply due to the numbers entering camp, there may be players let go after camp that won't be the typical college free agent kind of releases. On the offense line, some of the toughest decisions will involve guard. There are as many as five players fighting for the starting guard position, including rookie Peter Konz. Last season the Falcons carried nine offensive linemen into the season; entering camp this year they have 13. The defensive line will feature many similarly tough choices. Last year, the Falcons took ten defensive linemen into the season and this year they have 13. Much like the offensive line decisions, the final defensive line tally will exclude some players that some Falcons fans may have gotten used to seeing in Atlanta. Players like second-year end Cliff Matthews will face tough competition from rookie draft pick Jonathan Massaquoi. The same is true at defensive tackle with rookie draft Travian Roberston and the underrated Vance Walker. Defensive line is one of the most important position groups in the game and the choices the Falcons coaching staff make here will have a huge impact on the success of the 2012 defense.