Predicting the Winner of the Atlanta Falcons' Biggest Training Camp Battles
Atlanta has quite a few positional battles going on during training camp this year. Picking who is going to win each spot will be a tough decision for the Falcons. There are quite a few players who have to fight for roster spots on this year's team.
But the biggest training camp battles will come from positions that are either starting roles or might as well be considered starting roles. These spots will be crucial to the Falcons' success, so they need to make sure that they have the right guys at each spot.
Primary Change-of-Pace Running Back
Since he was drafted in 2011, Jacquizz Rodgers has split duties in the backfield with Jason Snelling and either Michael Turner or Steven Jackson as the primary change-of-pace running back. Heading into the final year of his contract, Rodgers faces a new challenge in Devonta Freeman.
Freeman was the primary back at Florida State for the national champion Seminoles and has all the tools to be a starting all-around back in today's NFL. Rodgers isn't going to completely lose all his carries, but Freeman should definitely take a bulk of them from him.
Also, Freeman has some power to his running style that Rodgers just doesn't have. Speaking of a power-rusher to replace Snelling, Josh Vaughan is a name that will get thrown around a lot, but people are sleeping on Jerome Smith out of Syracuse.
The former Orangeman is a pure power running back who is very similar to Snelling in build, speed and initial abilities. Antone Smith also has a shot to compete as a change-of-pace back as well, but the man who should run away with the job is Freeman.
Projected Winner: Devonta Freeman
The argument could be made that this shouldn't even be a competition with how Harry Douglas performed in 2013. His 1,067 yards and 85 catches were both career highs. But teams don't just o out and sign athletic receivers who can play inside or outside in any offensive formation like Devin Hester.
Teams also don't give those guys three-year, $9 million contracts like what the Falcons gave Hester. Sure, most of it is going to be for his return skills, but Hester has a legitimate shot to gain an offensive niche role in Atlanta—something he might not have given a fair shake at in Chicago.
The Falcons should already have plans to make sure Hester gets specifically designed touches his way this year. But Douglas shouldn't be completely phased out of the offense with coordinator Dirk Koetter's love of the four verticals concepts and talent the Falcons have at receiver.
The other option Atlanta has is letting Drew Davis have a shot at the role. It may seem crazy, but the fourth-year receiver has paid his dues on special teams each of the past three seasons and has shown to be competent as a route-runner and receiver.
Another option could be to have any of the rookie undrafted free agents get a shot at the role. The best fit from that group would be either Bernard Reedy—a speedster from Toledo who lit up minicamp a few weeks back—or Freddie Martino—who played a similar role at Division II North Greenville.
Projected Winner: Harry Douglas
Starting 3-4 Weak-Inside Linebacker/4-3 Weak-Side Linebacker
This wasn't originally even going to be a legitimate training camp battle heading into the offseason. Originally, Sean Weatherspoon was going to be handed the job as the starting weak-inside linebacker in the 3-4 and weak-side linebacker in the 4-3.
However, just a few weeks ago, Weatherspoon tore his Achilles tendon and is now out for the season. The Falcons already have plans to replace Weatherspoon's leadership by having Paul Worrilow and William Moore—the starting middle linebacker and strong safety—take over his vocal roles.
But they need a true replacement for him on the field. Joplo Bartu and Prince Shembo look to be the main competitors for the job. Shembo and Bartu don't have much NFL experience, but they both have a ton of physical talent.
Bartu also showed as a rookie that he can play in the NFL after he posted 85 tackles, 3.5 sacks and a pass deflection filling in for Weatherspoon. He should have the early lead on the job due to familiarity with the scheme, Worrilow and the rest of the defense.
Nonetheless, Shembo brings a unique, physical skill set that would make him valuable as an inside linebacker for the Falcons. Shembo could start in the 3-4 role while Bartu plays the 4-3 role, and Atlanta can have a rotation of fresh, talented linebackers.
Projected Winner: Joplo Bartu
Atlanta has one of the most unique nickel cornerback situations in the NFL right now. They have multiple options that they could go with if Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant play to their potential on the outside. They have Robert McClain, Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas as the main guys competing for the spot.
Wilson was the nickel cornerback in Washington last season but wound up getting promoted to the starting lineup after injuries depleted their corps. Arenas was a nickel in Arizona last season after spending his first few years as a cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs.
In fact, Arenas was the guy drafted with the pick that the Falcons sent to Kansas City for Tony Gonzalez. It's somewhat poetic that the Falcons now have Arenas the year after arguably the greatest tight end to ever play the game retired.
McClain has been the Falcons nickel corner for the last two seasons. The loss of Brent Grimes in 2012 allowed McClain to step up and take over the nickel role. He slightly regressed in 2013, but if the pass rush is better in 2014, it would mask a lot of his deficiencies.
Overall, it would be surprising if McClain lost the job to anyone. He's been the starter and has earned the right to maintain the job if neither Arenas nor Wilson show enough to beat him. For the long-term, Ricardo Allen is hte true challenge to McClain's spot.
Projected Winner: Robert McClain
Starting Free Safety
The biggest hole on the current Falcons roster is at free safety. Though, even if Thomas DeCoud had been brought back, it would have still been the biggest hole on the Falcons roster. The Falcons decided to go in another direction because they feel they have an upgrade.
When someone like Dwight Lowery, who missed most of last season due to injury, is considered an upgrade, that's sad. When a rookie who's raw like Dezmen Southward is considered an upgrade, that's even worse in a lot of ways.
But Lowery and Southward should be upgrades at free safety this year. They should show more range, ball skills and tackling ability in one season than DeCoud showed during six seasons. But the question now becomes who the best of the pairing is; it becomes who will start.
Southward has all the physical tools to be one of the best safeties in the NFL, yet he's so raw that it makes it tough to properly evaluate him. The Falcons need to work him in slowly during the regular season, throw him in during non-crucial situations like 1st-and-10 on the 45.
It will help him develop quicker than sitting on the bench would. Lowery should begin the season as the starter, but by the time the season ends, it'd be shocking if he remained the starting free safety. Atlanta needs more range than what Lowery provides at the position.
Projected Winner: Dwight Lowery
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.
Scott Carasik is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He covers the Atlanta Falcons, college football, the NFL and the NFL draft. He also runs DraftFalcons.com.
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