FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — If the Atlanta Falcons had any designs on Sean Renfree winning the backup quarterback job last year, that plan went awry after Renfree suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during the final preseason game.
A seventh-round pick in 2013, Renfree was placed on injured reserve, meaning he could still attend meeting-room sessions and travel with the club. That also meant that for the second year in a row, Dominique Davis, an undrafted player out of East Carolina, earned the No. 2 job.
With Renfree healthy, and the Duke product performing well at the Falcons’ mandatory minicamp, the race to sit behind Matt Ryan on the Atlanta depth chart is wide open. The competitors include Renfree, Davis and undrafted free agent Jeff Mathews, a four-year starter from Cornell.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith said Renfree "absoultely" has a chance to win the backup spot.
"I think that’s going to be very competitive," Smith said. "Sean did not get to play any snaps, he was injured early (in 2013). But Sean is a very cerebral quarterback, played at Duke, played for David Cutcliffe … (who) has a long line of quarterbacks that are playing in the NFL.
"It’s going to be good competition there, as well. And the Matthews kid, the young undrafted rookie, he’s done some things. Has a nice arm, very intelligent player."
Falcons fans undoubtedly squirm at the thought of Ryan missing games to injury. The quarterback has been a durable asset, missing only two games in his six seasons. Perhaps not coincidentally, those games came in 2009 — when Ryan couldn’t lead the Falcons to the playoffs.
However, the rare occasion will arise when a backup quarterback — even one with no experience — will have to direct a veteran team. In 2011, the Falcons lost at Houston to T.J. Yates, a rookie making his NFL debut, and Yates helped the Texans win a playoff game later that year (against the Bengals).
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Renfree went 13-for-25 (52 percent) for 84 yards during the 2013 preseason. He didn’t throw a touchdown or interception but was sacked twice.
During minicamp, Renfree has worked, at times, with the Falcons’ No. 2 offense. He’s still learning the offense.
"This is my second year," he said. "I’m getting more comfortable within the offense and getting all of the little things right. There’s a lot of little things, being a quarterback, in terms of communication and checks and stuff you need to make, but I’m getting more comfortable with it every day."
Suffering a season-ending injury was tough, particularly time spent away from the team while rehabbing. But Renfree understand that’s part of football.
One quick way of learning the offense: Simply watching Ryan orchestrate everything with confidence and precision.
"Obviously, he’s great to watch," said Renfree, who met Peyton and Eli Manning at Duke when they came to visit Cutcliffe, their former college coach at Tennessee and Ole Miss, respectively. "That’s the best learning you can do is just watch Matt, the way he does things at a very high level. And, of course, he’s great (answering questions). He’ll help us with anything we need."
Davis is taking nothing for granted in the race for No. 2. He feels more comfortable in the offense and believes the coaches are more comfortable around him.
Still, he has yet to turn 25 and does not have much in the way of playing time. Against Tampa Bay last November, Davis completed 5 of 7 passes for 34 yards in limited action. During the preseason, he didn’t fare much better than Renfree, statistically speaking.
Davis was 41 of 78 for 456 yards (53 percent), two touchdowns, three interceptions and was sacked four times. He also gives the Falcons an extra dimension when running the ball. Last preseason, he ran 12 times for 98 yards.
Here’s how Davis characterizes the competition:
"I am a competitor," he said. "Everything I do in life is a competition with me. I just look at it that way. I don’t really say I have an upper leg or I’m in a fight, I just go out there and the reps I get, make the best of them."
In Mathews, the Falcons have an intriguing player, one who could be ripe for the practice squad or more — if he truly distinguishes himself. He was projected to get drafted in the fifth or sixth round but slipped through the cracks.
Mathews has prototypical size (6-4, 229 pounds) and was the most prolific quarterback in Ivy League history — by more than 2,000 yards.
A four-year starter, Mathews threw for 11,284 yards. Like Renfree, he comes from an elite academic institution and last year was one of six finalists for the National Football Foundation’s William V. Campbell Trophy, which recognizes the top football scholar-athlete in the nation.
Clearly, Mathews has a leap to make in terms of the speed of the game. Cornell didn’t face any FBS programs during his collegiate career.
"I think things happen quicker, obviously," he said. "You’re throwing to faster guys. There’s faster guys on defense and the game, the pace of the game’s quicker. I think that’s something you adjust to. … After five weeks of being out there, I feel comfortable with the speed of the game."