It's barely June, but expectations have probably never been higher for Atlanta Falcons' fans as we head into the summer months.
With the 2012 campaign officially behind them, the 2013 Atlanta Falcons took the field for the first time as unit last week at the team's first group of OTA sessions.
There were plenty of new faces on the field as guys like John Abraham, Dunta Robinson, Michael Turner, Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo are gone in favor of veterans like Osi Umenyiora and Steven Jackson, as well as a group of young players that includes Lamar Holmes, Peter Konz, Mike Johnson, Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant (who did not participate in OTA sessions last week because he's finishing his academic business at Washington like fellow rookie Levine Toilolo is at Stanford).
What did we learn from the first week of OTA sessions? Where are the position battles on this team shaping up? Who impressed the coaches? Join me as we discuss that and more and look back at the Atlanta Falcons first week of OTA sessions.
Note: Unless indicated otherwise, the analysis in this article is based on information obtained from player and coaches interviews found in the AtlantaFalcons.com Media Lounge, information shared in the AtlantaFalcons.com Falconcast with Jay Adams and Daniel Cox or from reporting by D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez were absent (remember that these workouts are voluntary) from last weeks' OTA sessions, and starting linebackers Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon sat out of practices as they both recover from offseason surgeries.
With those guys out of the mix, players like Pat Schiller, Brian Banks and some of the younger wide receivers and tight ends (sans Toilolo) all received more reps. In addition, fringe veterans like Robert James, who will likely be competing for their own roster spots in training camp, received more snaps as well.
There isn't nearly as much pressure in OTA sessions as there is in training camp because these are non-contact practices. The Falcons hope that these young players will take advantage of the time to get familiar with the system so they can play at full speed in training camp and force the coaching staff to make some difficult decisions when it's time to trim the roster down later this summer.
As many fans have suspected, Mike Smith made it clear that there is going to be a great deal of competition for rosters spots and playing time at linebacker behind Sean Weatherspoon, Stephen Nicholas and Akeem Dent, and along the offensive and defensive lines as the Falcons look to get younger in the trenches.
In addition, Smith made sure to note that the team expects position battles at cornerback and backup safety as well. While Desmond Trufant is favored by most observers to win the starting cornerback job opposite Asante Samuel, the Falcons view (via ProFootballTalkLive, audio is at around 15:00 minutes) Robert Alford as a starting corner in this league and Robert McClain played well last year in spots. All three players will likely be evaluated heavily in camp.
Moreover, the backup safety competition between Charles Mitchell, Kemal Ishmael, Shann Schillinger and Zeke Motta is a little more important than a lot of fans think because of William Moore's injury history. Any one of the players I mentioned may have to be ready to start a game or two during the season if Moore gets banged up again, or Thomas DeCoud goes down.
Kroy Biermann has demonstrated his versatility during his first five seasons with the Falcons, and it sounds like Mike Nolan has even more plans for him in 2013.
Mike Smith pointed out that team will try to decrease some of Biermann's time on Atlanta's special teams units.
With guys like Jonathan Massaquoi, Cliff Matthews and Malliciah Goodman all primed to show what they can do at defensive end in camp, I wouldn't be shocked if Biermann ends up spending a lot of time as a stand up rush linebacker in a hybrid front this season.
The Falcons will face a lot of talented quarterbacks in to 2013, so it behooves them to find creative ways to generate pressure.
One of the main highlights of last week's OTA sessions was seeing Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora on the field in Falcons' uniforms for the first time.
Daniel Cox of AtlantaFalcons.com pointed out that Jackson looked as big as Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon without pads, and the Falcons hope that Jackson uses that size and his physical running style to gain some yards that may have been left on the field in the ground game last season.
Also, the team spent some time on a few screen plays during the OTA sessions, so you can expect Jackson to play a key role in the passing game next season as we've discussed.
As for Umenyiora, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan commented that he was impressed with the ex-Giant's leadership skills throughout the sessions.
As it is with most of the linemen, it's tough to evaluate Umenyiora without pads, but the Falcons know the kind of player he was in New York and they're confident that his championship pedigree will make a tremendous impact on this team.
Bradie Ewing participated in the OTA sessions, and Mike Smith reported that the fullback's knee is fully recovered.
The Falcons signed ex-South Carolina fullback Patrick DiMarco last week, but all indications are that the starting fullback job is Bradie Ewing's to lose heading into camp.
Ewing was a decent receiver out of the backfield at Wisconsin, so he could play a role as an outlet for Matt Ryan in the passing game when the Falcons use a two-back set.
Moreover, having the ability to put a true thumper in front of Steven Jackson in the running game could help the Falcons keep the chains moving on a lot of the pesky short-yardage situations that stalled the offense last season.