In many ways, Russell Athletic Atlanta Falcons Training Camp for Robert McClain is vastly different from a year ago. Last season, he was a name few had heard of and put together a strong camp and when it was all said and done, he'd earned a job despite the lack of name recognition.
After injuries in what looked like a strong secondary for the Falcons pushed McClain into more playing time, he answered with a solid season that allowed the front office to feel comfortable in reshaping the cornerback position in Year 2 of D-coordinator Mike Nolan. With McClain, who enters his fourth season, in the fold along with Asante Samuel, the Falcons added two rookies in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, and both are expected to contribute in their first seasons.
The loss of some veterans in the secondary hasn't changed the CB meeting room much. McClain said on Friday that Samuel is still the unquestioned leader, but every player is trying to pick up the leadership slack by handling their own business and helping others when they can.
"Asante's the same from last year," McClain said. "The guys who stepped up last year are stepping up and even the young guys are stepping up this year. Everybody is taking on the role of being a leader themselves and leading themselves and doing the right things. We're leading others and the rookies to do the right things."
Those two rookies are seeing a lot of reps through two days of training camp and when highly-drafted rookies come into the fold, the competition level rises and head coach Mike Smith has said he anticipates a lot of competition at many positions this year, especially on defense. McClain said even early on, he can tell the competition has been taken up a notch.
"We have a lot of good athletes on the defense and there's been a lot of competitiveness in the secondary, a lot of competitiveness with the linebackers and on the defensive line," he said. "We're making the coaches jobs tough because the best players are going to be out there and the coaches know that. So we're all competing."
Although they're all competing, McClain said he's excited about the two rookies and their differing skill sets. McClain can relate to the unknown nature of an NFL season. Injuries come up and you're forced to rely on players further down the depth chart and if those players aren't ready, your team will suffer. McClain stepped in last season and made a name for himself, primarily out of the slot, but he lined up all over the field.
Although he's taking a lot of snaps out of the slot, he said the secondary is focusing on versatility and being able to play different positions when necessary. Versatility like that came in handy last season when the parts all started moving and if that becomes the case again this year, they're going to be ready.
During training camp this season, the secondary is working with a lot of different rotations. The rookies have found themselves on the field with other starters and McClain in the slot among other lineups that includes Samuel as the No. 1 CB on the outside.
"Everybody has to play everybody's position," he said. "You'll see Trufant at nickel, (Dominique) Franks at nickel and you'll see Peyton (Thompson) at nickel. You'll maybe even see safeties at nickel. Everybody has to know everybody's position because we have to be versatile in the secondary."