Training camp preview: Position battles facing the Falcons

Peter Konz will be trying to fight his way back into a starting role on the Falcons' offensive line as training camp begins on Friday.

Dale Zanine

ATLANTA — When the NFL closed up on-the-field action with Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2, millions of households began counting down to the start of the 2014 season. Sure, the combine, pro days, and the draft help whet appetites, but nothing’s like getting back to work in the NFL.

The Atlanta Falcons hit the field for training camp on Friday. It’s a happy day in NFL circles.

After a 4-12 season, the Falcons had some work to do in the offseason to put the team in a place to rebound quickly. Talent was added all over the field, via free agency and the draft.

First-round pick Jake Matthews looked great in offseason workouts, and should help keep quarterback Matt Ryan from being frequently mauled in 2014. The enormous, 6-foot-4, 345 pound Paul Soliai is expected to make the transition to a 3-4 defense easier, and help the Falcons fix a run defense that was ranked dead last in the NFL last season.

While Matthews and Soliai are penciled in as starters, there are still some position battles left to be determined in training camp. Here are five to watch as Atlanta hits the field Friday:

When Devonta Freeman was selected in the fourth round by the Falcons, first impressions were that he’d give Jacquizz Rodgers a push for some second-team touches.

But then Freeman showed something in rookie minicamp.

The new back from Florida State showed an extra gear that Rodgers doesn’t have. He showed a top speed that wasn’t available in the Falcons run game last season–an ability to separate, and do so rather quickly, once he got into space.

Freeman’s only shown his stuff in a helmet and shorts, he still needs to put on the pads and perform. But if he shows the skills he displayed during offseason workouts at training camp, and he figures out how to be helpful in pass protection, not only will he put Rodgers in the rearview mirror on the depth chart, he may take some touches away from Steven Jackson.

With Thomas DeCoud playing elsewhere (he signed with division rival Carolina), the Falcons need a new partner in the middle of the secondary to stand next to William Moore. Dwight Lowery was added via free agency, and general manager Thomas Dimitroff called Dezmen Southward’s name in the third round of the 2014 draft to add to the competition.

Lowery has been given the first opportunity to win the job, taking most of the first-team reps during minicamp and OTAs. He’s a versatile defensive back that has played both safety and cornerback in the NFL. If things go right on defense for the Falcons, the free safety will play a lot deep zone, roaming around the middle of the field, deep. Lowery’s a good fit for that.

Not only will Lowery have to fend off Southward, he’ll be battling against the injury bug. He’s only played 12 games over the past two seasons because of a foot injury in 2012, and a concussion in 2013.

Southward has the size to play both safety spots, and has been working behind Moore at strong safety during offseason workouts. But don’t count him out of this competition. The Falcons brought Southward in to play that "center field" position in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense. He’s got the speed and athleticism, now he needs to work on his coverage skills.

The linebacker position was a barren wasteland in 2013 for the Falcons. Injuries (Kroy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon both missed most of the 2013 season) and lack of depth decimated the linebacker corps last season.

It was so bad, undrafted rookies Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu played huge roles in Atlanta’s defense.

The Falcons addressed the lack of depth issues by picking four linebackers in this year’s draft. But Weatherspoon ruptured his Achilles trying to work his way back onto the field in June. There’s now much work to do to determine who will play the inside linebacker positions in Atlanta’s new 3-4 hybrid defense.

Worrilow led the team with 127 tackles last season, he’ll get first crack at staying with the first-team defense. Bartu was third on the team with 85 tackles, and offered 3.5 sacks too. But Bartu’s job isn’t written down in ink.

Bartu is going to have to fight with new addition Pat Angerer, and even rookie Prince Shembo for his spot.

Angerer signed with the Falcons just three days prior to training camp. He’s an oft-injured linebacker that just had microfracture surgery on his knee, but has now been cleared to play. When healthy, the former second-round pick can be a tackling machine, with some cover skills.

Shembo is making the move from outside linebacker at Notre Dame, to the inside with Atlanta. The Falcons like the idea of Shembo’s pass-rush skills from the middle of the field, and he could show enough in training camp to push Bartu. Especially since the Falcons are in dire need of pass-rush help.

In the secondary, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford–first- and second-round picks, respectively last season–have the two cornerback spots locked up for the Falcons. There are a number of players vying for a shot to play nickel when the defense runs with five defensive backs, which is more often than not.

The Falcons have Robert McClain, Javier Arenas, Josh Wilson and Ricardo Allen all hoping to win the job. McClain is the incumbent, but he’s not a clear front-runner. Both Arenas and Wilson could easily step in to take the position away, with Allen an outside competitor.

Neither McClain (-1.5), Arenas (-1.5) nor Wilson (-2.7) posted positive pass-coverage grades last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Arenas only played 107 defensive snaps in 2013, and had the best coverage numbers, but limited play. McClain gave up three touchdown catches last season in 584 defensive snaps, and quarterbacks enjoyed a 126.8 passer rating when throwing toward him.

Wilson played 982 defensive snaps in 2013. He allowed five touchdown catches while in coverage, and quarterbacks that threw his way posted a 119.0 passer rating.

The nickel spot in Atlanta is completely an open competition. And if for some reason Lowery doesn’t win the free safety battle, and is healthy, his name will be added to the mix of nickel hopefuls.

The center-quarterback exchange is only one portion of the responsibilities Joe Hawley has in his job title of starting center. He’s got to read defenses and call plays along the line. He’s kind of the quarterback of the offensive line.

Hawley is the starting center heading into training camp. He’s built a favorable rapport with Ryan, which speaks volumes for why he’s under center.

But Peter Konz, the former second-round selection from 2012, is entering a make-or-break season. He’s got to prove he wasn’t a wasted pick. Konz has floundered at center, and at right guard for two seasons. His versatility is a huge plus, but he won’t push his way into the starting lineup until he shows he’s not a liability.