With training camp starting in two weeks for the Atlanta Falcons, head coach Mike Smith will get the opportunity to put his players through a series of drills, tough training and quality workouts to see who fits best on the team. After going 4-12 a year ago, look for the Atlanta Falcons to restore its position as a high caliber team in the NFC South division.
However, in the meantime, there are some positional battles to watch going into and throughout training camp. Three of the most important position battles to watch will be the battles at the inside linebacker, cornerback and tight end positions.
As we know, last year, the Falcons’ defense was very subpar, finishing 27th in defense overall, 31st in rush defense and 21st in pass defense. These statistics will definitely be on the mind of players throughout training camp, specifically linebackers and cornerbacks.
The secondary for Atlanta was not very active last year and with the departure of safety Thomas DeCoud to the Carolina Panthers, it will be interesting to see who can become a big playmaker in the secondary for the Falcons.
The Falcons have four quality players vying for the nickel cornerback position, which include Josh Wilson, Javier Arenas, Robert McClain and Ricardo Allen. Going into his third year playing for the Falcons, McClain will be an early favorite because he knows the defense. However, with only 65 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles and zero interceptions, that is not going to cut it. With no interceptions last year and only one in 2012, he will be thoroughly challenged for his position in training camp in a couple weeks.
Arenas, who came from the Kansas City Chiefs, really wasn’t highly used with his previous team in terms of defense but more so on special teams. Nevertheless, the former shutdown cornerback from Alabama has not lost much of his quickness and speed to the ball and his ability to make plays. With only four years in the league, Arenas still has a good opportunity to emerge as a starting cornerback.
On the other hand, Wilson is a veteran player, with eight years in the league. He is not a bad player by any stretch of the imagination. However, with the competition at the position this year, I simply do not see him starting on the field. Although he had 93 tackles last year, he only had one interception, which is something every Falcons cornerback will need to increase in terms of being successful on defense. Forcing turnovers are the difference maker in a game.
Allen is a rookie cornerback, but I would not sleep on him. He holds Purdue’s record for the most interceptions returned for touchdowns and he had a pretty productive senior year. I don’t think he will start in his first year. However, it won’t be long before the athletic cornerback gets his chance to take the field as a starter, definitely someone to watch for in camp. Nevertheless, I expect Arenas and McClain to emerge as starters going into the regular season.
Expect to see a good battle at the inside linebacker spot for the Falcons. Out of Paul Worrilow, Tim Dobbins, Joplo Bartu, Brenden Daley, and Prince Shembo, I expect Worrilow to come out as a starter at inside linebacker. Worrilow had a productive year, recording 127 tackles last season through 16 games for the Falcons.
Next in terms of success and production on the field, Bartu made 70 tackles, 3 sacks, one forced fumble, four pass deflections and one interception. Bartu is most productive in terms of producing a strong pass rush. Look for him to improve in the upcoming season. In regard to Shembo, Dobbins and Daley, Shembo has the best opportunity to make a strong stance for a position for the Falcons. The Notre Dame prospect will definitely get a chance to grow and develop at the position this year. As for Dobbins and Daley as an undrafted free agent, I am not sure how much upside they will bring to the Atlanta Falcons at the position.
All in all, with the departure of Akeem Dent to the Houston Texans, look for Worrilow and Bartu to emerge as the top threats at inside linebacker for the Falcons.
Tony Gonzalez is gone. The second leading receiver on the team last year is gone for this one. With six tight ends on the roster currently, it will be very interesting to see who be the main target when the season starts. Pascoe and Shuler have the most experience in the position on the Falcons roster. Nevertheless, Levine Toilolo has begun to catch some attention, adding extra muscle this offseason to his upper body and getting stronger in terms of blocking. Despite playing behind Gonzalez at the position, he managed to register 11 receptions for a total of 55 yards and two touchdowns. Toilolo has a lot of potential as well.
The rookies, Jacob Pedersen and Brian Wozniak, will compete hard for a spot at tight end as well. However, I do not see Pedersen or Wozniak being a starter going into the season. Toilolo and Pascoe should emerge as the top tight ends for the Falcons when the season starts.