Atlanta Falcons: What to Watch for at OTAs

Al BruceContributor IMay 20, 2013

Atlanta Falcons: What to Watch for at OTAs

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    The Atlanta Falcons don't begin OTAs until after Memorial Day, but since we're all probably going through a little football withdrawal, there's no better time to preview next week's practice sessions and discuss some of the storylines to keep an eye on.

    It should be noted that the NFL's collective bargaining agreement imposes some strict rules on teams during OTA sessions.  ProFootballTalk.com recently highlighted the key provisions of those rules, namely that the players are not allowed to wear full pads and no live contact is permitted.  That means you won't see blocking, tackling, pass-rush drills or even one-on-one drills between receivers and defensive backs.

    Indeed, offenses and defenses are allowed to compete against each other in 11-on-11 drills, but only within the confines of the aforementioned rules. 

    With that understanding, I'm not going to mention any offensive or defensive linemen in this piece because I don't think it's practical to expect to learn much about what any of the young players on the line can do until the team starts practicing in pads.

    Even still, there will be plenty to watch for as the 2013 Falcons take their first steps toward what they hope will be a Super Bowl run this year. 

    Let's begin our preview of the Atlanta Falcons' OTA sessions with a look at one of the Falcons' prized free-agent additions, Steven Jackson.

Steven Jackson's Role in the Falcons' Passing Game

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    Next week's OTA activities will be the first time that Falcons fans get to see Steven Jackson line up in the backfield for the Falcons.

    This is significant because Jackson is expected to be an upgrade over Michael Turner in the passing game.  Furthermore, since players won't participate in contact drills during OTAs, you can look for the Falcons to emphasize the aerial attack during their practice sessions.

    How will the Falcons use Jackson in the passing game?  Were his career-low 38 receptions last year a sign that he isn't the receiver that he was earlier in his career? 

    Those are two questions to keep in mind as Jackon makes his debut next week.

Brian Banks vs. Veteran Players

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    Brian Banks hit the ground running at rookie minicamp, but he will be on the field with Atlanta's veteran players for the first time during OTAs.

    Standing out when competing against other rookies who are trying to get acclimated to the NFL is one thing, but getting noticed against the Falcons' returning veterans is another matter.

    OTAs should help Falcons fans get a better idea of what they can expect from Banks when the Falcons put the pads on later this summer.

Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford vs. Falcons' Veteran Wide Receivers

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    Given the important role that they will play for the Falcons this year, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford will continue to be in the spotlight for Atlanta during next week's OTAs.

    It's should be a lot of fun to see Trufant and Alford match up against Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez in 11-on-11 drills.

    Despite the restrictions placed on OTA practices, Trufant and Alford will need to get as many reps as possible this offseason to prepare for Week 1 against the Saints.

Will We See Any of Mike Nolan's Plans for Defending the Read-Option?

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    Falcons coaches have spent some time with Clemson Tigers coaches to discuss defending the read-option and pistol offenses that they will see from the Panthers, 49ers, Redskins and Seahawks next season.

    Even though OTA practices won't be in fully-padded practices, they present a good opportunity to work on verbiage and alignments on defense as the Falcons look to improve in an area that will be critical to their success in 2013.

    I wouldn't be surprised if Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan spent a part of the on-field time during OTAs installing the defensive sets that he will employ to defend the read-option next year.

How Will Levine Toilolo Interact with Tony Gonzalez?

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    Rookie tight end Levine Toilolo will be practicing with Tony Gonzalez for the first time. 

    While many Falcons fans expect Gonzalez and Toilolo to form a mentor-mentee relationship, Toilolo is going to have to be receptive to coaching from both tight ends coach Chris Scelfo and Gonzalez if he offers it.

    Also, Toilolo can't expect the Falcons' No. 2 tight end job to be handed to him with Chase Coffman on the roster.

    Like Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, Toilolo will benefit from getting as many reps as he can this offseason.

How Are the Falcons' Young Backup Quarterbacks Coming Along?

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    Dominique Davis turned a lot of heads during the preseason last year, and it will be interesting to see what kind of progression he has made heading into his second training camp with the Falcons.

    Beyond Davis, rookies Sean Renfree and Seth Doege will be trying to improve on rookie minicamp performances that led some observers like D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to declare (via AJC.com, see "comments" section) that both players looked "a bit rusty".

Competition Between Rookie Linebackers

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    In addition to Brian Banks, undrafted free agents like Nick Clancy, Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow will all be trying to show Falcons coaches that they are ready to compete at the NFL level.

    Sean Weatherspoon, Stephen Nicholas, Akeem Dent and Robert James are Atlanta's only returning veteran players at linebacker, so barring a late free-agent addition after June 1, there's a strong possibility that one of the rookie linebackers will make the final roster.

    While the rookies are trying to get noticed, fans will also be interested to see whether or not Akeem Dent shows any signs of improvement in going into his second season as a starter.

Matt Ryan's Growth in Dirk Koetter's Offense

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    Matt Ryan put up career highs in passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and quarterback rating in his first season in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's system.

    Moreover, in 2013 Ryan won't have to answer questions about winning a playoff game anymore. 

    What kind of improvement can fans expect to see from Ryan?  Will he cut down on the turnovers?  Will the Falcons run more no-huddle offense? 

    Hopefully OTAs will shed some light on these issues as well.

What Are You Looking Forward to About OTAs?

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    Now it's your turn.  What are you looking forward to seeing at the Falcons' post-Memorial Day OTA sessions?