The 2010 Atlanta Falcons will open camp next month with 21 of 22 offensive, and defensive starters from last season still on the roster. The lone exception is Chris Houston, who has departed for Detroit and been replaced by Dunta Robinson.
Despite the continuity of the Falcons roster, several starting positions figure to be up for grabs this preseason as Mike Smith and company look to make the squad Super Bowl worthy. Here are seven position battles that will be worth watching.
Popular wisdom is that the Falcons will want to get the first round draft pick Sean Weatherspoon on the field immediately because of the speed and athleticism that he brings at the linebacker position. The question then becomes which current starting outside linebacker will be headed to the bench.
Veteran Mike Peterson outplayed first year Stephen Nicholas in 2009 by a fairly wide margin, so at first glance Nicholas would appear to be the odd man out. However, Peterson will be 34 years old when preseason opens while Nicholas should be just entering the prime of his career at 27 years old.
Also, Peterson seemed to fade as last season progressed, at least with regards to making impact plays. All of Peterson’s impact plays came in the first third of the season last year, though he continued to rack up solid tackle numbers throughout the season.
Nicholas play throughout the 2009 season can best be described as solid, but not spectacular.
My best guess: Given the choice of two fairly equal players, the Falcons choose to start the player that should be on the upslope of his career—Stephen Nicholas.
After an extremely solid 2008 season, Erik Coleman had an inconsistent 2009 season. While playing solid run support and racking up a ton of tackles, he made mistakes in the passing game that helped opposing teams score big pass plays last year.
It’s possible that Coleman just made a few high profile mistakes last year and he is ready to return to 2008 form, but his struggles from last season have renewed interest in William Moore’s playmaking potential. The Falcons coaches seem excited to learn what a healthy William Moore can bring to the table, so Coleman will have to be on his game this preseason to stay in the starting lineup.
My best guess: Nobody knows what William Moore can bring to the Falcons secondary, and so far he has not proven he can even withstand the physical nature of the NFL game. Coleman is a good player, and I think he will bounce back and retain his position.
The Falcons offensive line struggled in 2009 after being considered one of the league’s best in 2008. Popular sentiment is that Sam Baker and Justin Blalock are the two weakest links in the unit. Since Baker is a first round pick entering only his third season and the Falcons made no moves to upgrade the tackle position this offseason, Baker looks safe.
Unfortunately for Blalock, the Falcons spent two consecutive mid round selections in the draft on players that are capable of playing left guard. Rookie Mike Johnson played the majority of his snaps at Alabama at Left Guard and should push Blalock for his starting position. Rookie Joe Hawley from UNLV could also be a factor.
After a decent rookie season and a solid sophomore campaign, Justin Blalock struggled in 2009, particularly against the better defensive tackles in the league. In defense of Blalock, he simply didn’t have to play as many quality defensive tackles in 2008, so it’s possible that his perceived drop off was simply a product of the schedule.
Either way, the Falcons will need a better effort from the left guard position in 2010.
My best guess: Blalock rebounds, and the Falcons line is able to maintain the cohesion that has been developing since 2008. Johnson and Hawley will be solid depth for the group.
Left Defensive End
The Falcons appear to be giving up on Jamaal Anderson as the impact defensive end they believed he would be when they drafted him No. 8 overall in 2007. He hasn’t shown the speed, power, or technique necessary to generate a consistent pass rush at any time during the past three years, and as a result he’s only contributed 2.5 sacks in his first three seasons. In a desperate attempt to salvage the pick, the Falcons have reportedly asked him to gain weight so that he can be better suited for the defensive tackle position.
The heir apparent at the left defensive end position would appear to be third year player Kroy Bierman, who showed promise last year while contributing five sacks in limited playing time. In order to solidify the starting position, Bierman has to show consistency in run support and maintain consistency in his pass rushing efforts. Bierman appears to have the talent, technique, necessary work ethic, but we’ll have to wait until preseason to have that impression confirmed.
If Bierman does not take the next step, the Falcons have another young and talented option in Lawrence Sidbury Jr., a second year player from the University of Richmond. Sidbury showed glimpses of his talent in preseason and limited regular season opportunities last year, and could be ready to step into the starters role if Bierman does not continue to progress.
Chauncey Davis may also be in the mix, but if he hasn’t taken the job by now, he is probably destined to be a rotational player, or maybe even get cut.
My best guess: Bierman will step up and be the man, but Sidbury will get plenty of snaps as well.
The Falcons have one of the best Defensive Tackles in the league in Jonathan Babineaux, but they have struggled to get production deeper into the defensive tackle rotation.
Second year player Peria Jerry showed promise in the preseason and season opener of 2009, but he suffered a season ending knee injury in week two and it’s difficult to predict how he will bounce back this year.
Jamaal Anderson showed the ability to penetrate while lining up at defensive tackle last year, but he always seemed a half step away from making a big play. To solidify the role, he needs to make up that half step and show that he can consistently get a push, rather than just showing the occasional flash.
The Falcons brain trust is high on rookie Corey Peters from Kentucky, and he will get a fair shot at a starting role, particularly if Jerry is unable to fully recover from his injury.
Other players that will figure in the rotation will be Vance Walker and Thomas Johnson, both of whom made plays last season but failed to provide consistent push or penetration.
My best guess: If Jerry recovers, he is the guy. If not, Anderson and Peters will get the chance to solidify the rotation, but Coach Smith will keep running guys out there until he finds somebody who can get the job done.
Wide Receiver No. 2
The Falcons coaches will tell you that Michael Jenkins does what he is asked in the offense. While that may be true, the Falcons need more out of the position than Jenkins provides if they want to win a Super Bowl.
Defenders of Michael Jenkins will tell you that he is an excellent blocker. Unfortunately, blocking cornerbacks, most of whom do not want to make tackles anyway, never has been the most important job for a wide receiver. Starting wide receivers need to catch passes, make yards, and score TDs. In six seasons, Michael Jenkins has never achieved 85 receiving yards in a game, while serving as a starting WR for the majority of five of his NFL seasons.
Why has Jenkins never had a great game in his career? It is not hard for even the most casual observer to figure this out. While Michael Jenkins is a very fast straight line runner, he’s not an agile player and he really only runs three patterns well. He can run the fly pattern, the skinny post, and the corner route if he lines up on the left side of the field.
Those are really the only patterns that Jenkins performs well. If he tries to run a curl, out, or a short crossing pattern, he does a very poor job of extending his hands or coming back for the ball and he has virtually no elusiveness once he gets the ball in his hands.
In short, I do not believe he is starting material for a Super Bowl caliber offense. The only thing he has in his favor in 2010 is that the only viable candidate to replace him, third year player Harry Douglas, who is coming off a torn ACL injury. Given Douglas’s dependence upon his elusiveness, the likelihood that he will be adequately recovered by preseason to crack the starting lineup seems remote.
The only other candidate to take that position would be Kerry Meier, a sixth round draft pick. While Meier has impressed Falcons coaches and fans in the OTAs, it is way too early to start thinking that he is the next Marquis Colston.
The Falcons have a couple of undrafted free agents that they seem impressed with in Brandon Harvey and Ryan Wolfe, but it’s hard for me to remember any time a player entered preseason as an undrafted free agent and came out of preseason a starter. It seems extraordinarily unlikely.
My Best Guess: Somebody will take Michael Jenkins job in 2010, but it could be the middle of the season before it takes place.
The Falcons made a big splash in the offseason by signing CB Dunta Robinson to shore up the secondary, and the position battle opposite Dunta is shaping up to be the most interesting of all of the Falcons position battles.
While the secondary unit struggled mightily in the middle of the season, they finished strong during a three game winning streak to end the season, albeit against three of the most inept passing attacks in the league.
Brent Grimes finished an up and down season with a flurry of athletic interceptions, and other big plays. Rookie Chris Owens, a third round pick in 2009, held his own when he got an opportunity to start at the end of the season, after having a disastrous preseason in which he gave up TDs to complete scrubs.
Of the two, Owens is the more physical player, while Grimes seemed to finish 2009 ahead of Owens in coverage skills.
Veteran Brian Williams also figures into the equation. He entered the 2009 season after being signed as a free agent from Jacksonville, but was lost for the season in the sixth game with an ACL injury.
My best guess—By the end of 2009, Brent Grimes looked like a great football player. I have a hard time seeing him heading back to the bench, but if he does, it probably means the Falcons are going to have a very strong secondary in 2010.
The Falcons chances of reaching and winning a Super Bowl rests largely on improved productivity from these positions. With so many position battles developing despite so few roster changes, the Falcons appear to have much improved depth in 2010, giving them a better chance to deal with the kind of injuries that helped cripple their 2009 season.