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Atlanta Falcons: Most Intriguing Training Camp Battles
Who Will Play Key Roles in 2013?
Yahoo! Contributor Network
By Darryl L. Jones | Yahoo! Contributor Network – 19 hours ago
COMMENTARY | Heading into the 2013 season the Atlanta Falcons depth chart is far from decided. After losing a handful of starters from last year's top-seeded team in the NFC, Falcons fans can expect a few new faces to contribute at key positions for their team come September.
Head coach Mike Smith has been on record as saying, "This is going to be the most competitive offseason that we've had since our first season."
Who will be competing in these position battles?
Let's take a look.
Cornerback: Robert Alford vs. Desmond Trufant
Atlanta's first two picks from the NFL draft this past April will battle for the starting cornerback spot opposite Asante Samuel. The loser of this battle will most likely be relegated to special teams and subbing in on dime packages, since the Falcons still like third-year corner Robert McClain as the nickel back.
Both Trufant and Alford have been impressive in their brief auditions in mini-camp. Alford has had more time on the field, however, as Trufant (like most Pac 12 senior draft picks) missed OTAs because he was busy with his graduation at the University of Washington (best reason to miss OTAs EVER).
Due to Samuel's age, both Alford and Trufant are the future of the Falcons secondary. Alford is speedy, athletic and will undoubtedly make an impact on special teams (especially the return game… more on that later).
Nevertheless, I'd give the advantage to Trufant to win this battle, as a byproduct of how much they have invested in him. You don't trade up for a dime back.
Offensive Tackle: Mike Johnson vs. Lamar Holmes
After the release of long-time right tackle Tyson Clabo, an immediate job opening was declared at right tackle. Instantaneously, the odds-on favorite became second-year offensive tackle Lamar Holmes.
Holmes definitely looks the part (6'6", 333 pounds) and appears to be a more talented pass protector than his primary opponent, Mike Johnson.
However, there is something to be said about the time and effort Johnson has put in while in Atlanta, as he's capable of playing every position on the offensive line. Also of note, Johnson has been practicing with the first-team offense during mini-camp, and is seen in the eyes of some as the new favorite to win the job.
I'm of the mindset that practicing Johnson with the first team is a more of a motivation tactic for Holmes to step it up a notch during training camp than an indication of the state of the battle itself. I fully expect Holmes to shine when the pads come on, and to be starting at right tackle Week 1.
Another motivating factor for this move is the versatility of Johnson-which gives him even more value as a backup lineman since he is capable of backing up every offensive line position.
Defensive End: Kroy Biermann vs. Young Bucks
We've all heard it a thousand times. No Abe, no pass rush.
While some Falcons fans are still holding on to the possibility of an Abraham return, I'll conduct this as if he's not coming back.
Kroy Biermann slid in as the starting defensive end opposite John Abraham after the Ray Edwards debacle finally reached its ugly conclusion. Biermann did a decent job and finished the season as the team's second leading pass rusher with four sacks (boy do we need pass rushers).
The Duff Man did an admirable job filling in at defensive end, but in actuality is more of a rotational player. Biermann has one of the best motors on the team, but the more snaps he played last season the more he seemed to get pushed around at the point of attack.
This was most evident in the two playoff games, as both Seattle and San Francisco started to open up gaping holes for their running backs (many of them being off-tackle) in the second half of both games. Not entirely Biermann's fault, of course, but he was clearly wearing down as those games went on. Biermann is best suited as a rotational pass rusher, which would allow him to use that great motor in spurts to keep him fresh.
Training camp should open up the opportunity for rookie Malliciah Goodman and second-year defensive end Johnathan Massaquoi to take their games to the next level.
Free-agent acquisition Osi Umenyiora has raved about the two youngsters, and has expressed his interest in showing them the ropes.
Both are terrific athletes and both have the potential to be great pass rushers.
Although playing the run is more about leverage and being gap-sound, it's also worth noting that both Goodman and Massaquoi outweigh the smaller Biermann by a healthy margin.
I expect one of the young bucks to be starting Week 1, with Biermann playing some key rotational snaps at both defensive end and linebacker.
Return Man: Robert Alford vs. Anybody
It's no secret that the Falcons struggled in the return game last season. With guys like Dominique Franks and the oft-injured Harry Douglas combining for an average of 7.9 yards per punt return and zero touchdowns, it's safe to say that the Falcons could use some explosiveness in the return game.
Enter Robert Alford.
The Falcons used a second-round pick on the South Eastern Louisiana product not only for his coverage ability, but for the explosive plays he's capable of on special teams. Alford averaged 14.1 yards per punt return last season, nearly twice the average of the Falcons punt returners.
Jacquizz Rodgers did a decent job on kickoffs, but due to his increased role in the offense, it will be interesting to see if they still want to risk him taking hits on special teams.
I expect Alford to handle all of the return duties next season.
Backup Quarterback: Dominique Davis vs. Sean Renfree
If you watched any of the Falcons preseason games last season, you most likely gained plenty of respect for Dominique Davis. Even with reserve receivers dropping passes all over the place Davis looked impressive throughout.
It's because of Davis that no one was really upset over the release of last year's backup Luke McCown.
Though, with all the promise that Davis has shown, rookie quarterback Sean Renfree might have even more promise.
A student of the highly-revered David Cutcliffe (coached both Manning brothers in college) while at Duke, Renfree just seems to have that "it factor" that you look for in a quarterback. He is a tireless worker in the film room and is capable of making all of the throws.
This may turn out to be the most intriguing battle to watch for this preseason. (What else is there to watch during preseason other than backup quarterback play?)
I expect Davis to edge out Renfree, but it will be difficult for Atlanta to sign Renfree to the practice squad (after a projected impressive showing) without some other team snatching him up off of the waiver wire-unless the Falcons decide to carry three quarterbacks.
Darryl L. Jones is an authority on Atlanta sports. He has lived in Atlanta his entire life, and has followed the Falcons his entire life. He is also the Atlanta Sports Examiner for Examiner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DarrylJonesATL.