Jonathan Massaquoi will be a player to keep a close eye on in preseason.
One reason talking heads don't see the Atlanta Falcons as the sexiest pick to win the NFC is because of an apparent lack of improvement in the trenches.
While the Falcons lost center Todd McClure to retirement, defensive tackle Vance Walker to free agency, and veterans Tyson Clabo (right tackle) and John Abraham (defensive end) to releases, the Seahawks and 49ers loaded up with big free-agent names.
Seattle added pass-rushers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. San Francisco added corner Nnamdi Asomugha and a top prospect in rookie defensive end Tank Carradine.
It's easy to see why the Falcons have not drawn as much confidence from pundits. Steven Jackson is definitely a nice addition, though some might be giving too much attention to the fact he just turned 30 years old. Tony Gonzalez's return helps as well, and Osi Umenyiora is a tenured Pro Bowl player and a good locker-room presence.
But the Falcons needed additional help along the defensive line before Abraham was surprisingly released, and because his sack number from last year (10) was replaced by Umenyiora's (6), fans have been left scratching their heads.
Recent news is that the approximate amount of $7 million that the Falcons have left on the 2013 payroll, thanks to the contract extension of Matt Ryan, hasn't been set aside for a big-name vet, according to a report by D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
[T]he team is not rushing out to sign defensive tackle Richard Seymour.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, normally guarded about the team’s finances, told Alge Crumpler of the team’s flagship station, 790TheZone, that the Falcons have as much as $7 million in salary cap space. That number is higher than what is reflected in the NFLPA salary cap documents.
“There is some room, but we also have to keep in consideration that if injuries come about that we have some money to make sure that we help ourselves if something does come about,” Dimitroff said.
Some speculated that Abraham could and should come back to Atlanta on a lower cap hit, but his recent signing with the Arizona Cardinals erased that concept.
Combine all of these happenings with the fact Dimitroff waited until the third round of the draft to bring in a defensive lineman, and groans and moans seem justified.
There's a silver lining, however, and if Falcons fans know anything it's to have confidence in the team's general manager. Dimitroff made rounds in New England as a perennial Super Bowl contender, and Atlanta's team is starting to take a similar form every year: great quarterback, talented offensive weapons and a young, fast defense.
As training camp has begun, so have positive reports about Atlanta's youth. There are some names you need to know, especially along the defensive line.
Malliciah Goodman, who has already been tabbed "The Sacksquatch" by fans, might be the most exciting young pass-rusher on the roster.
Bleacher Report's NFC South blogger, Knox Bardeen, who has been at training camp in Flowery Branch, talked him up.
Goodman, the long-armed rookie out of Clemson, could combine with second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi (Troy) to create a more substantial pass rush than what Kroy Biermann and Ray Edwards provided last season (Edwards was released during the regular season).
Fans also have reason to be concerned with the defensive tackle position, which Seymour would have filled. Jonathan Babineaux has been a staple in the Falcons' front for years, but nobody has emerged alongside him.
Cliff Matthews, who has put on pounds to transition from an end to an interior lineman, is a body you need to keep an eye on.
But Bardeen has also reported that even Babineaux has gotten reps at defensive end, which reinforces the notion that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan likes his players to be versatile.
There's even reports that Umenyiora has been working in the stand-up position on occasion.
As far as the offensive line goes, Mike Johnson has reportedly impressed and could easily earn the right tackle position over Lamar Holmes. It's clear, if Clabo was released in that situation, that the coaches and management had confidence in Johnson's ability to step into the role.
Some have questioned Atlanta's offensive line, but the coaches obviously see it as much more stable than the media does.
There doesn't seem to be panic in Flowery Branch, Georgia surrounding the most vital positions of the football team—the trench positions.
The right tackle, defensive line and linebacker position battles will be fun to watch in preseason. Here's a rundown of them.
- Right tackle: Mike Johnson vs. Lamar Holmes
- Defensive end: Malliciah Goodman vs. Kroy Biermann vs. Jonathan Massaquoi
- Defensive tackle: Cliff Matthews vs. Peria Jerry vs. Corey Peters vs. Travian Robertson
Atlanta's first preseason game will be at home against the Cincinnati Bengals next Thursday.
Mike Foster is a Falcons Featured Columnist for B/R and a local sportswriter in Atlanta, Georgia. Follow Mike on Twitter!