The Atlanta Falcons' surprising 11-5 season in 2008 has put a lot of pressure on the team for the upcoming 2009 season to perform up to elevated expectations. For last year's team, it was an entirely different story entering mini-camps with a roster many expected to lose at least 12 games.
With the pressure on this young team, who lost many veteran and key starters to free-agency this offseason, this summer's position battles are sure to be very heated and extremely competitive. Here's a look at the three top position battles this summer, all on the defensive side of the ball.
OLB Opposite of Mike Peterson—In the Mix: Coy Wire and Stephen Nicholas
Analysis: Both Coy Wire and Stephen Nicholas are young players who neither have much experience starting in the NFL. Wire is more suited to be a strong side linebacker in the Falcons system, whereas Nicholas is better on the weak side.
The positive for the Falcons is that recently acquired Mike Peterson is suited to play either side, so it's all about who the Falcons feel is more prepared for the spotlight between Wire and Nicholas.
Even with Wire's strong play at the end of last season, I simply feel that the Falcons want the experienced Peterson on the strong side so he can take on more responsibility with coverage of the TE and taking on more blockers in the running game. They will start off with Nicholas as the starter at WLB.
Tidbit to Consider: Nicholas was actually set to be the starter last year at WLB before they drafted Curtis Lofton to man the middle and were able to move Brooking to the weak side.
#2 CB Opposite Chris Houston—In the Mix: Von Hutchins, Brent Grimes, Chevis Jackson, Chris Owens, and William Middleton
Analysis: This race is pretty wide open judging by the youth of all of the players fighting for not only this starting position, but also a roster spot.
Hutchins came into last season expecting to be the starter alongside Houston before his season-ending injury. UFA Grimes and Rookie Jackson saw plenty of playing time as a result of Hutchins' injury and they both showed their strengths and weaknesses while playing behind Dominique Foxworth, who was acquired from Denver during the season.
Both Owens and Middleton are unproven commodities, drafted this year to come in and add competition for in the No. 2 CB spot, while also providing much needed depth to the position.
The 3rd Round pick from last year showed great potential and play-making ability in his action as the nickelback covering slot receivers in his first year of action.
Tidbit to Consider: Brent Grimes started six games last year as the No. 2 CB and will be fighting to stay on the roster this year, with both Owens and Middleton coming in as fairly high draft picks as well as the return of Hutchins from injury.
DE Opposite John Abraham
In the Mix: Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis
Analysis: Anderson is entering his third year in the league and has failed to meet the expectations that come along with being the No. 8 pick in the 2007 draft. He has only two sacks in his first two seasons, while backup Davis had four just last year.
What's overlooked with Jamaal Anderson's play is how vital he is for the Falcon's against the run. He is a big body who has occasionally shifted over to tackle on passing downs.
They will give him one more year to develop his pass rushing skills to match what he provides in the running game. Chauncey signed a nice four year, $16 million extension in the offseason, which I believe will light a fire under Anderson to have a breakout season this year.
Tidbit to Consider: John Abraham had 16.5 sacks in 2008, all other Falcons on the current roster had 14.5.