Atlanta Falcons Desmond Trufant throws a pass during a NFL Play 60 event during the NFC Rookie Symposium at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility. (Reuters)
The Falcons, who report for camp on July 25, will enter training camp with three holes along the offensive line, a need for a pass rusher and a rookie to step forward in the secondary.
The team believes it has to create the stage for what is being billed by head coach Mike Smith as the most competitive camp since he arrived in 2008.
Most of the attention will focus on replacing long-time center Todd McClure, who retired after 13 seasons and 197 games in the trenches.
Peter Konz, who started 10 games at right guard, will enter camp as the favorite to beat out Joe Hawley. Konz was a second-round pick in 2012 and Hawley was a fourth-rounder in 2008 and has appeared in 37 games with 12 starts.
The starting right guard and right tackle spots are open after sliding Konz over to center and releasing Tyson Clabo.
There will be an all-comers battle for those spots with right guard Garrett Reynolds and right tackle Mike Johnson trying to hold off Lamar Holmes, Phillipkeith Manley and Harland Gunn.
Reynolds has won the starting right guard spot in each of the past two training camps, but hasn’t been able to put a stranglehold on the spot. Holmes, a third-round pick in 2012, is athletic, raw and nasty. He’s expected to give Johnson a battle for that right tackle position.
In the salary-cap purge, to make room for quarterback Matt Ryan’s contract extension, the Falcons shed themselves of their only legitimate pass rusher in John Abraham. They signed former New York Giant Osi Umenyiora to take over that role.
The team also let go three of their top five cornerbacks and are counting on rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to help with some tighter man-to-man coverage. Trufant is projected to win the starting right cornerback spot, while Alford could earn the nickel back position.
On the hot seat
Strong-side linebacker. Nicholas, who had sports hernia surgery over the offseason, led the Falcons with 116 tackles last season. He also had two sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and three passes defense.
Nicholas took a lot of blame for tight ends being so open in the playoffs. A film review of the San Francisco game revealed that he was responsible for three of the seven plays made by the 49ers tight ends.
However, the Falcons must devise a better plan to cover tight ends and Nicholas will face a training camp challenge to keep his role in the nickel and dime packages. Akeem Dent, who was a two-down linebacker against the run last season, took over Nicholas’ role in the offseason program when he was out recuperating from his surgery.
In the NFC divisional round, Seahawks tight end Zach Miller totaled 142 yards on eight catches and caught a 3-yard touchdown during Seattle’s comeback from 20 points behind in the fourth quarter.
In the NFC Championship Game, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.
Cause for concern
Right tackle and backup quarterback are the key concerns for the Falcons. Mike Johnson has not been able to crack the starting lineup in two previous seasons and appears to be ahead in the race to replace Tyson Clabo at right tackle. After being backed up by veterans Chris Redman and Luke McCown over the past five seasons, Dominique Davis is slated to be the No. 2 quarterback behind Matt Ryan. He won the No. 3 spot last season, but didn’t play in a game.
Rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant missed some of the OTAs because he was finishing up his college class work. Secondary coach Tim Lewis would Skype with Trufant in order to keep him up on the meetings. He struggled at times going against Roddy White and Julio Jones. He flashed his speed in battling back and competing. He’s set to start at right cornerback and will likely see plenty of action.
Right tackle, right guard, nickel linebacker and nickel back are the key position battles for the Falcons. Mike Johnson and Larry Holmes are battling for the right tackle spots. Johnson and Reynolds, who was been beaten out by Johnson the past two seasons, are battling for the right guard spot. Joe Hawley appears a long shot to beat out Peter Konz at center. Akeem Dent will get a chance to beat out Stephen Nicholas as the nickel linebacker opposite Sean Weatherspoon. Robert McClain will have to hold off a challenge from rookie Robert Alford for the nickel back spot.