Head coach Mike Smith said during offseason workouts that the most highly contested position battles leading into the 2012 Atlanta Falcons season would be on both sides of the line; offense and defense.
But the big guys that move everything around aren’t the only ones who’ll be fight for jobs. Here are five positions to really focus on over the next few weeks:
Left Tackle: Sam Baker was the starting left tackle until Week 7 last season when he was benched for Will Svitek. Svitek played six games without giving up a sack and even held Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen sackless, which allowed Matt Ryan to finish the game with a passer rating of 128.2, his third-best total of the season of the season.
The left tackle position is arguably the most important position on the offensive line. With the Falcons having no time to waste, expect Svitek to win the job from the start this season. The Falcons have to protect Ryan and Svitek proved he could do it last season. Although Baker will put up a fight, Svitek should prevail.
Right Guard: Garrett Reynolds and Joe Hawley worked together to take care of the right guard position last season, with Hawley getting most of the work. The Falcons are looking for a starter at that position, not rotational players. While Reynolds is more than capable of winning the job, I feel that with the right coaching, Peter Konz will overtake the starting job at some point.
Konz has the talent and the pedigree to be a starting offensive lineman as a rookie. His time as anchoring Wisconsin’s offensive line will pay dividends for the Falcons immediately. Although Reynolds may begin the season as the starter, Konz will dethrone him at some point.
Backup Safety: The Falcons recently brought in veteran safety, Chris Hope to add depth to the safety position. Hope’s biggest competition will be Shann Schillinger, a third year player who the Falcons have used predominately on special teams. While Schillinger has potential, and is a great special-teams asset, Hope is much more of a sure thing, which is why he was signed.
Hope’s experience alone is enough to give him the nod here, and his time playing under defensive mastermind, Dick Lebeau only adds to the experience the 11-year veteran brings to the team. Atlanta has two quality safeties in Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. Look for Hope to be the guy to round out the rotation at safety.
Wide Receiver No. 4: Kerry Meier is the front-runner to be the fourth receiver behind Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas. Meier’s main competition might be rookie Michael Calvin out of Cal, or Kevin Cone and Drew Davis.
Calvin is built very similarly to Meier but doesn’t run routes as well. Meier should win the job because his ability to put pressure on the seams of a defense. With defenses having to focus on the three aforementioned receivers, Meier could do damage as the fourth receiver.
Kickoff/Punt Returner: Although the Falcons must fill the void left by the departure of Eric Weems, it happens to be a void they are well equipped to fill. Douglas has to be the first option here because of his previous success. In 2008, his rookie season, Douglas became the first Falcon to return a punt for a touchdown in four years.
With Douglas fully healthy and more experienced, he would be the expected winner of this battle but should he need a breather, Jacquizz Rodgers would be able to play as well. Both Douglas and Rodgers posses the speed and return ability to play the position but Douglas’ experience makes him the likely starter.
Dominique Franks was the backup to Weems last season and also is a more-than-capable option.