ATLANTA — It’s been an offseason of significant change for the Atlanta Falcons — with three new starters likely on offense, an apparent schematic shift on defense and perhaps as many as five or six new starters on defense.
It’s a critical season for the Falcons after their disappointing 4-12 showing in 2013. Entering his seventh season as head coach, Mike Smith could be out at the end of the season if the Falcons do not, at a maximum, make the playoffs or, maybe at a minimum, finish with a winning record and show signs of major progress.
This Wednesday represents the first session of Offseason Team Activities, basically organized practices, that will be made available to the media.
Here are five key questions to pose before OTAs open up at Flowery Branch:
The Falcons selected Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews at No. 6 overall, but Matthews is expected to play right tackle for his rookie season. That means Baker will be entrusted with protecting QB Matt Ryan’s blind side for a seventh NFL campaign.
Baker has apparently gotten significantly bigger from his listed weight of 301 pounds last season. The hope, from the Falcons’ end, is that extra size and muscle will help Baker to stay healthy. In recent years, back issues have been especially problematic.
When healthy, Baker can be an effective player, when healthy. Last year, he played only three games. In 2011, he was limited to seven as a starter; and as a rookie in 2008, Baker started five games.
For Baker’s two full seasons (2010/2012), the Falcons finished with the NFC’s top record (No. 1 seed). If he cannot stay healthy, Atlanta might not have a clear-cut Plan B in Baker’s stead. Whether that involves moving Matthews to left tackle or putting Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson or Gabe Carimi in that crucial slot remains to be seen.
Decisions like that are typically made during OTAs and mini-camps.
The Falcons’ top linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, continues to nurse a knee injury from last season and will not participate in OTAs (along with wide receiver Julio Jones — foot).
Atlanta drafted four linebackers — Prince Shembo, Marquis Spruill, Yawin Smallwood and Tyler Starr. Last year, two undrafted players started a significant amount of games: Paul Worrilow (12) and Joplo Bartu (13).
In addition, Kroy Biermann, who played only two games last season before rupturing an Achilles, likely returns as an outside linebacker. Akeem Dent, who lost his starting job last season, returns as a middle linebacker.
That’s nine players, including Weatherspoon. Who will emerge on the top of the depth chart? How will the Falcons align that cluster? Who will play inside and who will play outside in 3-4 alignments? In nickel and dime packages?
Will Jonathan Massaquoi, drafted in the fifth round in 2012 as a defensive end, take on more of the hybrid end/linebacker role that Biermann did last year?
There are a lot of unknowns at this position.
The Falcons drafted Wisconsin’s Dezmen Southward in the third round (68th overall). They signed veteran free agent Dwight Lowery in the offseason. One will take the place of Thomas DeCoud, who enjoyed a Pro Bowl season in 2012 but was recently cut — the result of a disappointing 2013 campaign.
While the offensive line and linebacker groups will have a large number of players competing for several spots, this one could represent the best one-on-one competition of OTAs and training camp.
Lowery has experience but has started and played in only 12 games over the past two seasons, due to injuries. If he has trouble staying on the field during OTAs or camp, the door will open wide for Southward to start.
For someone who did not begin playing football until his senior year of high school, Southward could have a sharp learning curve to get up to speed by Week 1.
The Falcons return defensive tackles Peria Jerry, Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux, plus defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who will likely handle the role of "designated pass rusher" in 2014.
To that mix, Atlanta added veterans Tyson Jackson (3-4 end), nose tackle Paul Soliai and second-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman, a 6-6, 318-pound behemoth.
What do those parts look like in a 3-4? Clearly, Soliai will start at the nose. Beyond that, who does Hageman compete with for a starting spot? Jackson? Babineaux? Peters? Which sides do they play on?
Who plays where in a 4-3 front? How do last year’s rookies — Malliciah Goodman (Round 4) and Stansly Maponga (Round 5) — fit into those packages?
The Falcons have made a conscious effort to get bigger along their lines. Goodman (6-4, 276) is giving away a minimum of about 20 pounds to the players mentioned above, and that figure sits at 30 for Maponga (6-2, 265).
What role, if any, will those players have? The Falcons have rarely cut mid-round draft picks in Year 2, under general manager Thomas Dimitroff. If personnel like Goodman and Maponga no longer fit the scheme, they could be gone.
Gone is Garrett Reynolds, who started games in parts of the past three seasons at right guard.
On the first day of free agency, the Falcons signed former Chiefs guard Jon Asamoah. Last season, Asamoah started nine games, got hurt but did not regain his starting job upon returning to health. He’s not necessarily guaranteed a starting job in Atlanta.
Asamoah is 6-foot-4, 305 pounds, giving him a lower center of gravity than Reynolds (6-7, 310). Perhaps that will help.
Among Asamoah’s competitors:
**Mike Johnson, who led the competition at right tackle last season before a gruesome ankle and lower-leg injury in training camp ended his season.
**Gabe Carimi, a former first-round pick (Chicago Bears) who has played under new Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice. At 6-7, 316, Carimi — who also experience at tackle — would give the Falcons more size at guard.
**Peter Konz, the Falcons’ second-round pick in 2012, could also compete at right guard.
Many of these position battles are not just among two players. Some competitions, like this one, go four deep.
OTAs will begin to provide some perspective on where the players stand.