There are lots of interesting position battles along the Falcons roster as training camp looms in just less than two weeks. One of the most competitive ones could turn out to the kick and punt returner's roles. Gone is Eric Weems, the special teams ace that held down both jobs for the past two seasons. Weems' work in 2010 earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl.
A variety of names have been thrown out for the job. Harry Douglas, Dominique Franks, James Rodgers, Brent Grimes, Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith were the most frequent players associated with the role during the offseason.
Douglas' rookie season showed how capable he is in the role, especially that of punt returner. Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong gave a positive review of Douglas back in June, saying the four-year Falcon is always a threat to score. He also provided a hint about the punt returner job.
"He has a pretty good chance to be our punt returner," Armstrong said of Douglas.
Douglas said during the offseason's minicamp that he loves being a punt returner and hopes to win the job again this season. It appears to be Douglas' job to lose, but the other candidates will have an opportunity during training camp. The competitors appears to have been trimmed down to Franks and Rodgers in addition to Douglas.
Armstrong made a point to mention Smith during his discussion of the job so he can't be overlooked in the returner equation.
"You look at a guy like Antone Smith, you can get him involved in the kickoff returns as well, with his speed and running back ability," Armstrong said.
Since Weems had a stranglehold on the job the last two seasons, you have to go back to the preseason of the last two years to see how any of the candidates this year performed in the role.
In addition to Weems last year, Rodgers and Smith both got some action as the kick returner. Rodgers returned three kicks for a 21-yard average and a long return of 31 yards. Smith also had three returns, averaging 7.7 yards with a long of 15 yards. In the 2010 preseason, Franks got in the mix with Smith on kick returns. They each had one return a piece; Franks gained 30 yards on his and Smith 20 yards.
Franks was the main competitor with Weems during the 2011 preseason for punt returner. He returned five punts averaging 16.6 yards per return with a long of 44 yards and three fair catches. In 2010 as a rookie, Franks didn't fair as well with the same job. He returned three punts for -13 yards and had seven fair catches.
The positive thing about this year's competition is with the exception of James Rodgers, all of the Falcons involved have experience in the role and have have performed well doing it. The shoes of Weems will be hard to fill and it looks like the Falcons will use two different players to fill them, but who those two players will be remains to be seen.