ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons report to training camp on Wednesday and will then hit the field on Thursday morning. The roster currently contains 87 players (and should fill to a max of 90 at some point during camp) vying for a position on either the 53-man active list or the 10-man practice squad.
Several players have roster spots and positions locked down. Matt Ryan will be slinging the ball at quarterback, while Alex Mack will be snapping it to Ryan and Julio Jones will be the recipient of a bunch of passes. But there are still a lot of question marks along the depth chart.
Who’s going to start at the linebacker positions? With Devin Hester gone, who will return kicks?
Here are a list of some of the bigger position battles as the Falcons enter camp:
Right Guard: Chris Chester played right guard last season and head coach Dan Quinn said Tuesday that Chester will “start off” with the starting job as camp opens. But there are players who will get a look.
Mike Person is likely the chief competition for Chester, but when Quinn spoke to the battle he mentioned rookie Wes Schweitzer first. Whether that was a subtle nod to the rookies place on the depth chart or just the way Quinn listed the players mentally remains to be seen.
Return Specialist: Where will the Falcons look to return kickoffs and punts in 2016? Quinn called that one of the lead topics or battles heading into camp.
“Justin Hardy is one that we’re certainly looking at that way,” said Quinn on Tuesday regarding the punt return candidates. “Devin Fuller is one that we’re looking at that way, and then the last one would be Nick Williams.
“Then on the kick return side, Tevin Coleman did some of that in the preseason for us and he did it some in the offseason going in. He’s certainly someone we’re looking at. We’re looking at Fuller in that way and Hardy in that way.”
Hardy as a Year 2 player along with Fuller as a rookie could find this open battle as a way to expand a role (Hardy) or shine early (Fuller). Quinn also mentioned Eric Weems as a candidate who could return both kicks and punts.
Linebacker: Quinn said he was “pleased with the progress” of rookie linebackers Deion Jones (second round) and De’Vondre Campbell (fourth round). Both first-year players were drafted as speedy options to bolster Atlanta’s defense. But can they grow enough to win starting jobs?
“They are going to have a battle on their hands with Paul Worrilow, Sean Weatherspoon, LaRoy Reynolds, and some other guys that are battling,” said Quinn of the two rookies.
Campbell showed off during OTAs and minicamp and Jones plays (and looks) exactly as Quinn envisions someone should who mans that position. Worrilow knows this system well, which surely gives him an edge. If Jones can gain a quick grasp of the defense, his athleticism should push him past the veteran.
Third Corner: We know Desmond Trufant will man one side of the secondary and Robert Alford will grab the other in Atlanta’s base defense. But the Falcons play nickel greater than 60 percent of the time; a third cornerback as a starter is needed.
Alford will slide inside to play nickel when the team moves to five defensive backs, but who will play outside? Jalen Collins can’t until Week 5 because of a suspension. Akeem King and DeMarcus Van Dyke seem like front-runners to fill in for Collins for the first four games of the season. CJ Goodwin could also play into the competition.
There’s also reason to believe that whomever wins the battle during camp can keep the position all season. Collins didn’t overly impress during his rookie campaign and will have to take the position once he’s eligible. Nothing will be given to him.
Kicker: Matt Bryant has played in the NFL for 15 seasons, the last seven with the Falcons. He dealt with injury during the 2015 campaign and misplaced his “sure-fire lock” status from 40-49 yards as he went 6 for 9 from that distance.
Nick Rose wasn’t a bastion of success either, as he only connected on 71.1 percent of his field goals over his last two seasons at Texas.
However, Rose’s leg looked dominant to Bryant’s during offseason workouts and he has a fighting chance to unseat the 15-year veteran. Most kicking competitions are a facade, but Atlanta’s could turn fierce.
Wide Receiver: Julio Jones may arguably be the best receiver in the league. Newcomer Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy also have strangle holds on their roster slots. But who will emerge as the fourth and fifth receivers when camp breaks?
Special teams will play a huge role as both Weems and Fuller could make the roster strictly as a return specialist. That leaves Nick Williams and Aldrick Robinson as big competitors and a slew of undrafted rookies with a chance to emerge.
The back end of Atlanta’s receiver depth chart could offer a spot or two for players not currently on the tip of the tongue of Falcons Nation.
Backup Quarterback: While the Falcons hope for 16 healthy and productive games from Ryan, veteran Matt Schaub and second-year passer Sean Renfree will battle to be his primary backup.