The success of the Falcons in 2009 will largely depend on how they piece together their defense. There are spots available for the taking and the competition will be intense in camp.
On the defensive front John Abraham is locked in at one defensive end. The question is how many chances will Jaamal Anderson get to be an effective, every down, defensive end? Twenty-seven tackles and two sacks last year is just not going to cut it.
Chaunsey Davis could challenge for that spot, and I can't help but think that the coaches are hoping that fourth round draft pick Lawrence Sidbury makes a case for playing time as well.
At minimum Sidbury should make the rotation. Anderson is clearly on the hot-seat because they need someone opposite Abraham that can bring pressure and not be a liability against the run.
The Falcons didn't draft Peria Jerry in the first round for him to be a back-up. Jerry fits what Mike Smith wants from his defensive tackles. He is a workman like one gap penetrator capable of blowing up running plays.
Jerry's style is perfect for what they need.
Jonathan Babineaux figures, at least for now, to be the other starting defensive tackle, unless he gets beat out by Trey Lewis. Lewis is coming off of knee surgery so it will be interesting to see how he responds. At minimum he will be in the rotation.
Atlanta is really counting on their first round draft pick panning out to make their 4-3 more effective.
The Falcons are pretty set at middle linebacker with Curtis Lofton. Taken in the second round in 2008, Lofton made 108 tackles, which was second among all rookies in the NFL.
He is the only starter returning at linebacker, and he looks primed to be more of a difference maker and a leader. Mike Peterson comes over with his eleven years experience to line up on the weak side with Lofton.
Peterson was coached by Mike Smith in this system when he was with Jacksonville, so he is ready to play and should be able to help any of the other linebackers with the scheme.
The third year linebacker from South Florida, Stephen Nicholas should win the strong side position, but will be pushed by Coy Wire. With Peterson in the fold this should be a good group and will have to be the strength of the defense, at least starting out.
The defensive backfield is the biggest question mark. Layer Malloy is gone and Domonique Foxworth signed with Baltimore so there will be some new blood in the secondary.
Defense coordinator Brian VanGorder will have his work cut out for him here. Chris Houston will be one starting corner-back, but after that it is anyone's guess. There will be plenty of competition which is what VanGorder wants, but there is no clear cut favorite.
Von Hutchins and Chevis Jackson are potential candidates for the job. Hutchins speed may decide things here. William Middleton was drafted in the fifth round and if he performs well will be in line for a back-up/nickel or dime back.
This will be the most important battle because teams will pick on whoever they put out there because of the lack of starting experience. Mike Smith and his staff will have to find creative ways to get to the quarterback so as not to expose their corners, especially when they are in man-to-man coverage.
At free safety, the job is Eric Coleman's to lose. He has the experience and the ability to lead the secondary. Thomas DeCoud will compete with second round pick William Moore at strong safety. Antoine Harris will add depth, but doesn't figure to start.
There will be a good infusion of youth in the secondary, which is good, but the growing pains will be there as well. Overall I believe they will get better as the season goes on.