One Burning Question for Every Member of the Atlanta Falcons' Roster
A few things are clear for the Atlanta Falcons at this point in the year:
New coordinators will lead the offense and defense.
Their core players, with the exception of Curtis Lofton, return for another year.
They know their playoff woes must come to an end.
But now a few weeks into training camp, more questions currently exist than are answered.
Here is one burning question for every member of the Falcons' squad.
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Matt Ryan: is this the year he becomes elite?
He's got the weapons. He has a new coordinator. Now it's up to Ryan to prove he belongs among the league's best.
Chris Redman: how much longer can he be counted on?
Entering his fifth season as Ryan's back-up, Chris Redman is just as well-versed in Atlanta's offense as Ryan is.
But at 35-years-old, age may start to play a factor in Redman's abilities. He may not be a dependable reserve for much longer.
John Parker Wilson: could this be his last preseason with the team?
John Parker Wilson was signed by the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2009. While having made the final cut his first two seasons and for part of his third, Wilson has yet to supplant Redman for the No. 2 job. And if he hasn't been able to do so yet, he may never.
Unless he shows significant improvement in training camp, Wilson's days in Atlanta may be numbered.
Dominique Davis: can he beat out Wilson for the third-string job?
A 2012 undrafted free agent out of East Carolina, Dominique Davis could get the nod over Wilson at third-string.
Davis certainly has more upside than Wilson at this point, and has potential worth developing. Whether that potential is developed in Atlanta remains to be seen.
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Michael Turner: how will he fare with a reduced workload?
The Falcons said in 2010 they'd limit Michael Turner's carries only to see him carry the ball over 300 times in 2011, but this time they may be serious in reducing his workload.
Jacquizz Rodgers is expected to take on a greater role in the offense and the Falcons want to keep Turner fresh in the playoffs.
But Turner believes he won't be as effective with less carries, and the stats appear to back him up according to Bleacher Report's own Knox Bardeen.
If that holds true, an ineffective Turner could spell trouble for the Falcons in 2012.
Jacquizz Rodgers: how will he perform in an expanded role?
Much is expected of Rodgers this season. From fans, to media, to the team itself, the prediction of a breakout season from Rodgers in 2012 is nearly unanimous.
But preseason hype doesn't always translate into regular season success.
The chances will be there for Rodgers this year. What he does with them depends solely on him.
Jason Snelling: will there be enough carries to go around?
Jason Snelling filled in admirably for Turner when he missed part of the 2009 season to injury. Unless a similar situation presents itself in 2012, how new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will use Snelling remains a mystery.
With all the attention on Turner and Rodgers and a revitalized screen passing game, Snelling could see his 44 carries from a year ago drop even lower in 2012.
Antone Smith: can he fend off Dimitri Nance?
Antone Smith beat out Dimitri Nance for the fifth and final running back spot last season. The primary reason is his capabilities on special teams, where Smith performed well in 2011.
Another strong showing this training camp and the job is his to lose.
Dimitri Nance: has he improved on special teams?
Dimitri Nance's abilities as a gunner likely will be his only path to the Falcons' roster. If he's improved enough in that department, the fifth running back spot is attainable.
Richard Medlin: does he know he's just camp fodder?
Barring a string of injuries to the running backs mentioned above, Richard Medlin simply isn't seeing the field in a Falcons uniform in anything past preseason.
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Bradie Ewing: will he prove to be worth his fifth-round selection?
The Falcons were the subject of controversy when they decided to not only use a precious draft pick on a fullback this year, but to do so in the fifth-round.
With the NFL of today a pass-heavy league, the general belief is fullbacks should be taken later in the draft, if not signed as undrafted free agents.
While Bradie Ewing proved to be one of the better all-around fullbacks as a Badger, fans may be left wondering why he was drafted in the first place if he finishes the season as anything but the starter.
Mike Cox: can he win the starting job?
The Falcons likely want Ewing to win the job, but that doesn't mean Mike Cox won't go down without a fight.
Cox laid strong blocks when he stepped in at fullback after Mughelli was lost for the year to a knee injury midway through the season.
While the Falcons have more invested in Ewing, a dominant preseason from Cox might have them reconsider who they want paving the way for Turner.
Lee Meisner: does he have a realistic chance to make the team?
If the Falcons don't think Ewing is ready to start but like him enough to give him a spot on the team, that would put two fullbacks on the roster.
It's possible Meisner would have a shot at the practice squad, but all he can really hope for at this point is to make the most of his snaps and get signed elsewhere by training camp's end.
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Julio Jones: how great can he be?
54 catches for 959 yards and eight touchdowns in a season are respectable numbers for any No. 2 receiver, let alone a rookie who missed three full games in 2011.
Now a year older and a full off-season finally under his belt, the sky is the limit for Julio Jones in 2012.
Roddy White: can he limit the drops?
Roddy White led the league in drops last season after his first drop in 2010 didn't come until week 10.
With White having been plagued by untimely drops in his first few seasons in the league, the Falcons hope last year wasn't the beginning of a relapse.
Harry Douglas: how valuable will he prove to be?
Lost in the mix of Michael Turner, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez last season was Harry Douglas.
This year however, Douglas has the opportunity to play not only an bigger role on offense with a heavier pass attack and revitalized screen game, but on special teams as well if he wins the competition at punt returner.
Kerry Meier: how will he be utilized?
The Falcons had high hopes for Kerry Meier before the versatile Kansas product injured his knee prior to the start of his rookie season. 2011 was spent rehabbing and on special teams. Now, however, the quarterback-turned-receiver is looking to earn his stripes on offense.
With the Falcons set to pass more under Koetter, 2012 could finally be the year Meier becomes the dependable fourth receiver option he was hoped to be when drafted in 2010.
Michael Calvin, Kevin Cone, Drew Davis, James Rodgers, Marcus Jackson, Kenny Stafford & Tim Toone: who is the best special teamer of the bunch?
The fifth and six receiver spots are up for grabs, but as Mike Smith said himself, Atlanta's final receiver positions will come down not to offense, but to special teams.
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Tony Gonzalez: how does he fit in the offense?
Tony Gonzalez has been one of Matt Ryan's preferred targets since he joined the Falcons via trade in 2009.
He may see a decline in his numbers with Koetter's affinity for the screen pass and desire to spread the ball around more.
However, Gonzalez should continue to catch, run and block like the future Hall of Famer he is.
Michael Palmer: can he remain the team's primary blocking tight end?
Michael Palmer has been a solid backup in his time as a Falcon. He became the main blocking tight end after the Falcons decided not to re-sign Reggie Kelly at the end of last season.
Rookies and long-time veterans have been looking to replace him since then, but it would seem Palmer has impressed enough to keep his job.
Tommy Gallarda, Lamark Brown, Adam Nissley & Aron White: who stays with the team?
Chances are only one of these players will remain a Falcon. Tommy Gallarda may have the upper hand after making the practice squad last season, but competition from Lamark Brown, Adam Nissley and Aron White will be fierce.
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Sam Baker: will he make the most of his second chance?
Sam Baker's career has been plagued by injury, and everything came crashing down for him when he was benched in favor of Will Svitek midway through last season.
Now healthy, the Falcons have inserted Baker back into the starting left tackle position, anxiously hoping injuries were the main cause of his poor play.
Chances are it wasn't, and that leads to the next question.
Will Svitek: how long before he starts?
If the Baker of 2012 is the same Baker of old, it's just a matter of time before Will Svitek steps in once again to protect Ryan's blindside.
That could happen as soon as week 1 if the Falcons are serious about having the five best offensive linemen on the field.
Lamar Holmes: will he see the field at all in 2012?
A foot injury caused Lamar Holmes to miss all of rookie mincamp and OTAs, but he has been cleared to play since the start of training camp.
But as a rookie third-round pick Holmes is a project and looks far from an immediate starter.
Depending on the results of the Baker experiment, Holmes' development may be a key factor next season.
Tyson Clabo: can he get back to 2010 form?
Tyson Clabo was a Pro-Bowler in 2010, resulting in a five-year contract extension with the Falcons in July 2011.
But that didn't translate into great success last season, as he was part of a Falcons offensive line which regressed in both pass and run blocking.
If Clabo fails to improve on his 2011 campaign, he may end up as one of many NFL players to see production fall off after a big pay day.
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Peter Konz: when will he start?
When the Falcons drafted Peter Konz with their first pick of this year's draft, the popular belief was that he could start right away at either center or guard.
But Konz is currently listed as a reserve for both.
That either signals he's not the player the Falcons thought he was or they're simply bringing him along slowly. Considering it's still early in training camp, the latter is likely the case.
Garrett Reynolds: can he keep the starting right guard spot?
When the Falcons opened training camp, fans were stunned to learn Garrett Reynolds was listed as the starting right guard.
Reynolds, the guy who got benched late last season in favor of Joe Hawley, a natural center?
It's possible Reynolds improved enough this offseason to win his job back, but chances are the Falcons are simply giving him the first shot at the spot.
Justin Blalock: can he get back to 2010 form too?
What can be said about Justin Blalock? A 2007 draft pick, Blalock's play resulted in a six-year, $38 million contract extension last year.
While 2011 didn't prove to be his strongest season, Blalock joins Clabo as the Falcons' best, most consistent offensive linemen.
But like Clabo, a down year from Blalock in 2012 could have him join many other NFL players to see their production dip after receiving a big extension.
Tyler Horn, Bryce Harris, Mike Johnson, Andrew Jackson & Phillipkeith Manley: who is the most versatile?
Tyler Horn and Bryce Harris are listed as center and tackle respectively, but the question applies to them all the same.
Cross-training has been a focal point for the Falcons since Mike Smith became the head coach in 2008. Smith likes the idea of being able to plug a guy in a multiple positions, and that's what it may come down to for these five linemen.
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Todd McClure: does he have enough in the tank for one more year?
Last season marked the first time Todd McClure didn't start every game in a season since 2001. The 35-year-old has anchored the Falcons' offensive line for more than a decade but it would appear Father Time has finally started making its presence felt.
McClure won't go down without a fight despite facing strong competition from Joe Hawley, but he may be relegated to a reserve role sooner rather than later.
Joe Hawley: can he beat McClure for the starting job?
An injury to McClure had Joe Hawley open the 2011 season starting at center for three games.
McClure would return to his throne for the remainder of the year while Hawley would eventually be thrust into action at right guard late in the season.
But now entering his third year in the league, Hawley may finally have progressed enough to take the starting center spot away from McClure for good. A strong showing in preseason could make the difference.
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Corey Peters: when will he return?
While not yet a cause for concern, Peters' injury could potentially be disastrous for the Falcons if he isn't back by the season opener.
Jonathan Babineaux: can he bounce back this year?
Jonathan Babineaux has been a dominant defensive tackle for the Falcons since they drafted him in 2005, but if last year is any indication, he may not have many years left as a starter. The soon-to-be 31-year-old missed three games to injury last year in a 2011 campaign that saw him record a career low in tackles (21) and his lowest sack total since 2006 (1).
The Falcons will need a big year from Babineaux in 2012 if they hope to improve on defense.
Peria Jerry: is this his last year to prove himself?
Peria Jerry's status as a former first-round pick is perhaps the only thing keeping him on the team. Now nearly three years removed from a knee injury which took away nearly his entire rookie season, the soon-to-be 28-year-old has done little with the ample opportunities he's received.
Now Peters' injury gives Jerry yet another opportunity to prove he belongs in the NFL. Hopefully he's making the most of it, because it may be the last chance he ever gets.
Vance Walker: will he ever be a starter?
Vance Walker has been a part of the rotation since 2009, but has never been able to crack the starting lineup other than twice in replacement duty.
Thomas Dimitroff brought him back this year, so obviously he believes in him. But at this point in his career, one begins to wonder whether Walker will ever be a consistent starter in the league, or if he's destined to be no higher than a No. 3 option.
Travian Robertson: what kind of impact will he have as a rookie?
With the first four defensive tackles spots locked up, the rookie seventh-round draft pick will be fighting for the team's fifth and final spot at his position.
That late-round draft status makes him far from a lock to make the team himself, though at this point he still looks to be a better option than the undrafted free agents he's up against.
However, that doesn't mean Robertson will see much playing time in 2012, if at all.
Elisha Joseph, Micanor Regis & Conrad Obi: who makes the practice squad?
The Falcons likely won't be keeping more than five defensive tackles on the roster. If Robertson earns the final spot, that leaves these guys on the outside looking in.
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John Abraham: how good will he be?
When news broke that ex-defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had John Abraham drop back in coverage on a zone blitz last year more than any other defensive linemen in the league, everyone was left scratching their heads.
Why would you keep the Predator from doing what he does best?
Abraham virtually has been the sole source of Atlanta's pass rush these past few seasons, and should get back to recording sacks in the double digits under Nolan's pressure-heavy scheme in 2012.
Ray Edwards: Is he gone if he doesn't produce this year?
Edwards now says he's back to full strength and ready to prove he's not a free agent bust.
But seeing is believing when it comes to Edwards, and it is difficult to see him returning to the team next season if his 2012 campaign proves to be a repeat of 2011.
Lawrence Sidbury: Is it his time to shine?
Lawrence Sidbury has been the source of ever-growing buzz, and justifiably so. He recorded four sacks in very limited time last season and reportedly is already making the most of his opportunities in camp this year.
A more aggressive-minded coordinator coupled with more playing time could culminate in a big year for Sidbury.
Kroy Biermann: How will Nolan use him?
Kroy Biermann had his chance to start once before, and didn't do much with it.
So why did the Falcons re-sign him earlier this year?
Simple: With his ability to play the run, drop back in coverage, and rush the passer, Biermann could see his role expand as a hybrid DE/OLB under Nolan.
Jonathan Massaquoi: where does he fit in the rotation?
As much as the Falcons like to rotate their defensive line, playing time may be hard to come by for the rookie draft pick.
The late-round selection showed an ability to get after the quarterback at Troy, but his first year as a pro may exclusively be used to rush punters on special teams instead.
Cliff Matthews & Louis Nzegwu: Will either show enough to be retained?
Cliff Matthews and Louis Nzegwu will need to stand out with big plays in the snaps they'll get these upcoming preseason games. However, even if they do, chances are their best shot at making the team is earning a spot on the practice squad.
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Sean Weatherspoon: will 2012 mark his first Pro Bowl nod?
After going from nearly atrocious in his rookie season to one of the team's better linebackers his sophomore year, Sean Weatherspoon appears ready to make the jump to elite status in 2012.
Nolan will be looking to make the most of Weatherspoon's big-play abilities this year, and that added to the energy and attitude he brings to the field may be too much to keep him out of this season's Pro Bowl.
Stephen Nicholas: can he bounce back this year?
Stephen Nicholas only participated in 10 games last season after suffering injuries to his quadriceps and knee. While those look to be healed, a toe injury that kept him out of last January's wildcard matchup with the New York Giants required offseason surgery.
While Nicholas was cleared to play just prior to training camp, toe injuries can linger, and that could hamper his performance this season.
Spencer Adkins: is his spot safe?
Spencer Adkins has been a member of the Falcons since 2009. However, he's just managed to earn a start once in those three years, recording a total of 15 tackles over that span.
Adkins has proven to be a decent backup in his time in Atlanta, but the Falcons could decide to give their undrafted linebackers chance to develop after likely having seen all they ever will from Adkins.
Robert James: is this his last chance?
The Falcons drafted Robert James in 2008, but since then he's only seen the field in two total games recording zero statistics in both occasions.
At 28-years-old, James could be gone if he doesn't make the most of his snaps this preseason as younger linebackers are waiting in the wings.
Jerrell Harris, Pat Schiller & Rico Council: who makes the cut?
Even after bringing back Mike Peterson the Falcons remain thin at linebacker. That means there's a good chance at least one of these three undrafted free agent outside linebackers ends up on the 53-man roster.
Jerrell Harris' background as a former member of the pro-minded Nick Saban's defense at Alabama makes him a popular pick to make the team, but don't count out Pat Schiller and Rico Council just yet.
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Akeem Dent: can he justify the Falcons' decision to let Curtis Lofton walk?
The Falcons decided against re-signing starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton this offseason, which originally left second-year pro Akeem Dent and free agent Lofa Tatupu to fight for the job.
But a season-ending injury to Tatupu has made Dent the apparent starter going into the season. Whether he won the job by default or whether he was going to win it all along may always remain unknown.
But one thing's for sure: If Lofton, who wound up with the New Orleans Saints, ends up having a spectacular year while Dent struggles, the Falcons may regret the move for years to come.
Mike Peterson: can he still play at an NFL level?
Mike Peterson's teammates have started calling him 'Unc' after having recently re-signed with the team.
But that's understandable: Peterson just turned 36 in June. His leadership skills can't be denied, but at that age and coming off a season-ending injury, his on-field ability remains questionable.
Max Gruder: can he make enough impact plays to make the team?
Undrafted free agent Max Gruder will have to make every play count in preseason if he hopes to stay a Falcon. In games those plays will likely come as part of the third-string defense, but it's what he shows on special teams in practice that may be the deciding factor for him.
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Asante Samuel: is he or is he not in a steep decline?
Asante Samuel's former head coach believes so, but clearly his new one thinks quite the opposite after giving him the starting cornerback job opposite Brent Grimes.
So who's right?
At 31 years old Samuel's best days are behind him, but even then he should be good enough to help turn around a Falcons secondary which finished 20th in pass defense.
Brent Grimes: will he be a Falcon in 2013?
The Falcons placed the franchise tag on Brent Grimes, ensuring him over $10 million dollars on a one-year contract.
But as of right now, that's all he's been guaranteed.
The Falcons have kept Grimes for a bargain deal for years. In the meantime, he's become a Pro Bowl cornerback who has plenty of football left at 29 years old. If the Falcons don't show him the money, someone else surely will.
Dunta Robinson: is this a make-or-break year for him?
Put simply, Dunta Robinson has failed to meet the high expectations he faced after signing a monster contract with the team in 2010.
The excuses were he wasn't playing in his preferred position and the scheme didn't fit his skill. However, now likely playing more man-to-man under Nolan and having moved back to his favored spot in the slot, there are no more excuses for Robinson.
Dominique Franks: will he return punts in 2012?
Dominique Franks saw his role on the team diminish when the Falcons brought in Asante Samuel, but that role could shoot right back up if he wins the punt return job.
The job could be Franks' for the taking if the Falcons ultimately decide against risking Douglas or Rodgers to injury.
Christopher Owens: how will he perform in a contract year?
Christopher Owens is perhaps best known to Falcons fans for getting burned early and often in the Falcons' 2010 playoff game against the Green Bay Packers.
While Owens is better than is perceived, that doesn't change the fact he has not developed as hoped.
But with Owens in a contract year, the best from him may come yet.
Darrin Walls, Peyton Thompson, Marty Markett & Robert McClain: do they have a future in the NFL?
All but Darrin Walls are 2012 undrafted free agents. All are fighting for one spot. Walls has perhaps the best shot of the four after showing a few flashes and even recording an interception in garbage time last year, and that alone may give him the best chance of the four to make the team.
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William Moore: can he stay on the field?
William Moore's career has been plagued with injuries, but he's proven to be a hard-hitting safety with big-play ability when healthy.
A full 16-game season from him in 2012 could have him finish the year among the league's best at his position.
Thomas Decoud: will the Falcons regret securing him long-term?
Despite becoming notoriously known for missing tackles since becoming the Falcons' starting free safety in 2009, the Falcons went ahead and signed Decoud to a four-year extension earlier this year.
If Decoud isn't able to realize his full potential under Nolan this season, the Falcons may look back and wonder why they didn't give him a shorter deal or let him walk altogether.
Chris Hope: is there really cause for concern if he's called upon?
The Falcons signed Chris Hope in late June. A 10-year veteran, Hope brings a wealth of experience and leadership to a younger secondary, leaving some to wonder whether he would even be a better choice to start over Moore or Decoud.
Charles Mitchell: What will his impact be as a rookie?
Mitchell's youth gives him more upside over career special-teamer Shann Schillinger, and that alone may guarantee him a spot on the team.
But with three starter-quality safeties in Moore, Decoud and Hope in front of him, the Falcons' sixth-round draft pick likely will be starting his own career on special teams.
Shann Schillinger & Suaesi Tuimaunei: is there any hope for them?
Shann Schillinger has rarely if at all seen the field on defense since the Falcons drafted him in 2010, and Suaesi Tuimaunei is an undrafted free agent.
With the Falcons having just brought in Mitchell and Hope, it would seem Schillinger's days in Atlanta are numbered.
And if his are numbered, chances are Tuimaunei's are as well.
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Matt Bryant: can he get any better?
Aside from Shayne Graham's 100 percent field goal percentage on two attempts, Matt Bryant was the NFL's most accurate kicker last season.
Bryant made 27 of 29 kicks for a 93 percent accuracy rate, with both misses coming from over 40 yards out.
If there's one area on the Falcons roster not to worry about, it's at place kicker.
Matt Bosher: can he avoid a slow start?
Matt Bosher's overall statistics last season won't dazzle you. But it should be noted that it was a tale of two seasons for him in 2011:
After reaching a punting average over 40 yards just once through the first seven games of the year, that average ranged over 40 yards in eight of the last nine weeks of the regular season, reaching the 50-yard mark in five.
Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong believes last year's lockout to be the cause of his slow start, but now entering his sophomore year and having a full offseason to work with, Bosher could pick up where he left off.
Erik Folk & Dawson Zimmerman: what would have to happen for them to start?
Injury? Every Bryant kick sail wide while all of Bosher's punts don't make it past five yards? They suddenly forget how to kick a football altogether?
Unless something drastic happens, Erik Folk and Dawson Zimmerman simply won't be suiting up for the Falcons come September.