FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – On the final day of minicamp on Thursday, the Falcons announced that training camp will start on July 26. So, with exactly 35 days until then, it’s time to look forward to what some of the top storylines will be.
Asked the question, head coach Mike Smith sees it as being the battles along the offensive and defensive lines. It’s worth noting the Falcons finished minicamp with a first-team offense that was exactly the same as what it started last season with, except in two respects: Tight end Tony Gonzalez was absent, as he is attending the funeral of his stepfather, and fullback Ovie Mughellli was cut, replaced by Mike Cox, who was signed late last season when Mughelli was out with a season-ending knee injury.
“The two areas I think we’re going to have the most competition and the biggest battles is on the offensive and defensive line,” Smith said. “I think we have some depth at both of those positions. I think it’s going to be interesting to evaluate those guys. We’ve got somewhat of an evaluation process from these OTAs and minicamps, but when we compete in pads, it’s going to be a completely different animal.”
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While Garrett Reynolds practiced with the first team during minicamp and OTAs at right guard, veteran Vince Manuwai and second-round draft pick Peter Konz could be in the mix at that position as well. Sam Baker, who practiced with the first team at left tackle, will be tested again by Will Svitek, the starter at that position the second half of the season who was excused from minicamp because his father has taken ill. It also remains possible that at some point the Falcons could look outside their current group during training camp if they are unsatisfied with what they have.
On the defensive line, Smith said most of the battles are likely to be for reserve positions, which are still important, as the Falcons use a rotation of seven or eight players. The starting ends of Ray Edwards and John Abraham and tackles Corey Peters (out during minicamp and OTAs because of an injury) and Jonathan Babineaux are likely to remain the same.
However, that means reserve tackles such as Peria Jerry, the team’s first-round pick in ’09, and Vance Walker could face competition from Cliff Matthews, a seventh-round pick last year, and 6-foot-4, 304-pound Travian Robertson, a seventh-round pick this season out of South Carolina. At end, Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann, who has had a strong offseason, look to battle with fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi.
Here are a look at three other positions worth watching during camp:
During much of OTAs and minicamp, four-time Pro-Bowler Asante Samuel was a bit of a bystander, a result of his status as a newcomer after the Falcons acquired him from Philadelphia. Samuel, who continues to learn the system, practiced with the second team at the left corner, but with the first team in the nickel package on the right side with Dunta Robinson, the usual right corner, moving to the nickel spot. Could Samuel supplant Robinson in the base defense in non-nickel situations? That is one of the big questions of camp.
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan seems as if he will attack the quarterback. That could put pressure on the secondary.
“We consider that an honor in the defensive backfield, that he feels he can rush seven, eight guys and he has confidence in his guys on the back end,” Robinson said. “So we’re definitely excited about it. Pressure means the ball’s coming out fast, gives us an opportunity to make a lot of plays. We’re ready for the opportunities.”
Lofa Tatupu was an All-Pro in 2007 and is only 29, but he did not play anywhere last year after having surgery on the lateral meniscus in both knees following the 2010 season. Can he return to form or will Akeem Dent, a third-round pick last year out of Georgia, beat him out for Curtis Lofton’s old spot?
Blocking tight end
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Falcons worked out Daniel Graham, cut last week by Tennessee. Graham earned $2 million last season, so one could surmise the reason he has yet to sign with the Falcons, who are fairly cap-strapped, could be haggling over dollars. He could be waiting to see if he gets a better offer elsewhere.
In general, during his four previous seasons, Smith has gone with experienced players at blocking tight end – Ben Hartsock, Justin Peelle and Reggie Kelly – who were all at least six-year veterans when they played for the Falcons. At present, the team’s options are Tommy Gallarda, an undrafted free agent the team signed in 2011 out of Boise State, and Adam Nissley, a ’12 undrafted free agent out of nearby South Forsyth High and Central Florida.
One last thought
Smith said the relationship between quarterback Matt Ryan and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is going well and that he’s happy with Ryan’s offseason in which Ryan has sought to put on weight and get stronger.
“The relationship between the coordinator and the quarterback is one that probably needs to be the strongest one on the football team,” Smith said. “I know that Dirk has worked with Matt, as well as working with (new quarterbacks coach Glenn Thomas), because Dirk also has other responsibilities. But in terms of what Matt was able to accomplish, Matt has really progressed. You can see physically that he’s bigger. I think his arm strength is much improved from the first four years and, of course, the maturation of a quarterback, understanding what people are trying to get.”
Smith said Ryan’s minicamp also was impacted by the evolving relationship between the new offensive and defensive coordinators.
“It’s not like it’s been the last four years, when he knows when he comes out here on the third day that the defense is going to install ‘this’ coverage, so it’s been a little bit more of a chess match between the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator, because it’s the first time they’ve worked together,” Smith said. “And again, we worked together in terms of how we install our offense and defense, but this is the first sequence that we’ve had to do it as a new staff. This is a new dynamic, not only for the coaches, but also for the players.”