By now you know the importance of the nickelback in the Atlanta defense. Since the defense is in a sub-package for much of the game, the extra defensive back helps in pass defense and is generally considered a starting role. Like a number of positions this season, the nickelback is one of the hot spots where a competition is brewing. One day remains in minicamp and then things will really heat up come late July.
The Falcons welcomed back Robert McClain this year, the cornerback that's filled the role for the last two seasons. In addition to McClain, there's Javier Arenas and Josh Wilson, two more corners with experience playing in the slot. Competition is always present on a football roster and the signing of Wilson and Arenas to compete with McClain isn't lost on the fifth-year corner.
"It's going to be a competition this year," McClain said Wednesday. "They've brought in guys that can play the same position as me, but it's like that every year. Every year there's competition. I've just got to prove myself to the team, other teams and the coaches that I can play and I can play the position well. I'm out there fighting for a spot and trying to earn a spot on the team just like everybody else."
Unlike some of the spots on the roster, the Falcons didn't turn to youth for nickelback competition. Wilson brings seven seasons of experience in the NFL to the Falcons and Arenas, a second-round pick in 2010, has experience as well. Arenas, a Florida native and former Alabama player, said the opportunity to win a job played a big role in deciding to sign with the Falcons.
"You don't want to go anywhere where they have someone at that position," Arenas said. "If you do go to a place like that, your mindset is still 'I'm going to do my best to earn this position. I'm going to do my best to make this team.' For the most part, you want to be somewhere where you have the best chance to get on the field and help the football club, especially at a position you're comfortable at. I felt like this was the place and on top of that, just being in Atlanta, as far as the location being close to home. The coaches and the players I'm familiar with, I felt like it was a good fit."
In every competition, every player looks for an edge. For McClain, the previous experience in the scheme is cause for optimism. The tweaks that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has added to the defensive scheme are minimal and McClain said he's a fast learner and that combined with his prior knowledge of the scheme is a factor that plays in his favor.
While McClain may have a Nolan-experience edge, Wilson and Arenas bring a ton of experience to the position, enough experience to understand the differences in Nolan's scheme to others they've played in. According to Arenas, there's not much difference.
"It's basically all the same, but coach Nolan is very detail-oriented on what he wants from each position," Arenas said. "Being in the slot, it's the same there, getting your hands on guys, not allowing things that you shouldn't allow. If you've got inside technique, don't let the guy get inside, simple and plain. He's going to nail that into you. He's going to let it be known that that's something he doesn't want to happen. You see the fire in him and you want to get it done for him."
All three players understand that nothing is promised, not even for the returning starter. Arenas said they've got respect for each other, but the wide-open nature of the battle means they have to bring it every day and continue to do so when training camp begins. The spot is up for grabs, so every player has to perform, something McClain is familiar with, earning a roster spot with the Falcons in 2012 after joining the team in free agency.
"Everybody wants to earn a starting role," McClain said. "I'm not giving up anything and I'm going to go out there and play as though I'm fighting for that spot like I do every year."