Wyche: Competition will be fierce during intriguing Falcons training camp, with 2022 NFL Draft class in the thick of it
Nobody knows how the Falcons season will unfold. We do know this: their training camp is going to be one of the most notable in the NFL.
Nearly every rotational spot on the roster is up for grabs.
- Positional breakdowns: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Receivers/Tight ends, O-line; D-line; ILBs, EDGE
- Bair: Arthur Smith scheme, personnel upgrades provides potential for more explosive offense
- Falcons Building Blocks: Kyle Pitts, AJ Terrell, Chris Lindstrom, Drake London
- Finding the Falcons rookie class: Drake London, Arnold Ebiketie, Troy Andersen; Desmond Ridder; DeAngelo Malone, Tyler Allgeier, Justin Shaffer, John FitzPatrick
Seriously, try and find another NFL team with more uncertainty at most every position than in Atlanta.
Now, is that necessarily a good thing? Not really.
Teams with most of their players and rotations in place entering camp are what should be the clubs fighting for playoff spots at the end of 17 games. The Rams, Bengals, Chiefs, Bills, Packers, Niners, Bucs, Titans and Colts won't need to find out too much about their teams through the training camp process.
The Falcons? You betcha.
Offensive tackle Jake Matthews, tight end Kyle Pitts, rookie wide receiver Drake London, guard Chris Lindstrom, cornerbacks A.J. Terrell and Casey Hayward, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, kicker Younghoe Koo and running back/wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson seem set. Nearly every other spot: May the best man win.
With the Falcons, it's Real Talk.
The offshoot of that: "There's no entitlement in the building," GM Terry Fontenot told me.
There is nobody that holds the right to be entitled. This is a team that finished 7-10 in 2021 and had just two players named to the Pro Bowl – Pitts and long snapper Josh Harris, who is no longer on the team.
The fact that there are so many hungry, yet humble players trying to earn their place, keep their place or find a place will make this a training camp intense on a day-to-day basis. Not only will players be competing with teammates, but they'll also have to fight off players from other teams, other leagues and street free agents who have been evaluated and all being evaluated by Atlanta's personnel staff as I type these words.
Even the word safe won't be safe during this training camp.
There's also this, and this always causes the adrenaline to perk up: Rookies will have every chance to make immediate impacts in the two-deep rotation.
So let's focus on that, especially since the Falcons draft class generated positive reviews in the immediate aftermath from outside of the building and solid reviews from inside the building after a summer of witnessing work ethic and learning about these prospects.
The most discussed and potentially important competition will come at quarterback, with veteran Marcus Mariota and third-round pick Desmond Ridder. Mariota is fighting to regain a starting role after losing on in Tennessee, when Falcons coach Arthur Smith was there as offensive coordinator. Mariota spent the past two seasons backing up Derek Carr with the Raiders.
Ridder is coming off a great senior season at Cincinnati and, according to someone with the Falcons, had a good offseason in terms of learning, working and showcasing skills and ability that could translate to the NFL.
All those signs are positive, but none of that means anything until the pads come on and decisions must be made quickly in the huddle, line of scrimmage and post snap.
That goes for all players fighting to make the final 53.
London, selected No. 8 overall, will be worked in various spots (slot, out wide) to see how he can best be utilized. He is going to play right away because the Falcons need him to play right away. As huge as he is – I sat next to him on a flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta this spring and he is Calvin Johnson big – London is more than a large target with a big catch radius.
London is a catch-and-run receiver, which is important for Atlanta because so much of what could develop is a quick passing game to help offset concerns with protection.
Edge rushers Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone are players the Falcons need to find their way into the rotation early. They won't be forced into action until they are ready, but with Atlanta generating a staggeringly low 18 sacks last season, these talented quarterback hunters must transition to the big time as soon as possible.
Veteran Giants and former Georgia outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter and second-year edge player Ade Ogundeji are trying to forge their way as well and won't make things easy for the rookies.
Fifth-round running back Tyler Allgeier is one of those players who might be tough to get a read on without pads, but someone who will identify himself quickly once they come on. He's a punishing runner who also hit the big play while at BYU. He's also good in the passing game and has all the attributes of a three-down back. Veteran Damien Williams has a stake in what could happen in the backfield, as will Patterson of course.
As for guard Justin Shaffer, he could be one of several linemen moved up and down the front like Rubik's Cube squares until Smith and his staff find out what group of players plays best together and at what position. There could be several spots in flux, which is a good thing because this unit must play better for the running and passing games to work.
Tight end John FitzPatrick has a good shot as more of a blocking tight end, which is needed in this offense.
Of course, shining on special teams is always a way for young players to make their way on to the team early. However, there must be steady improvement or someone else will be brought in to help this team.
Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot aren't big on excuses. Smith routinely says that he knew the challenges of remaking this team when he took over in 2021 and that it wouldn't be easy. It's the same message he wants his players to understand in one of the biggest seasons of unknowns that the Falcons have entered in years.