Falcons: 5 position battles to watch during camp

BY foxsports • July 23, 2013

ATLANTA — In the spirit of Phil Mickelson's first Open Championship golf title ('Lefty' to his fans), the Atlanta Falcons will start training camp on Thursday with the majority of talent and depth slanted to the left side — for both offense and defense.

The right side — with the notable exception of defensive end Osi Umenyiora — stands out as the weaker half. Right tackle, right guard and right cornerback will provide most of the drama for the next six weeks, as the Falcons look to fill holes on their roster and make a possible Super Bowl run.

Here are five position battles to watch during camp at the club's training facility in Flowery Branch:
Based on minicamp, first-round pick Desmond Trufant (22nd overall) will have the edge going into training camp. Despite the limited practice reps during the spring, Trufant still spent more time with the first team than Robert Alford, the Falcons' second-round pick.

Training camp and preseason games are likely to determine the outcome. However, Trufant remains unsigned and Pro Football Talk reported on Sunday that he could be "digging in" to demand more guaranteed money in the fourth-year of his contract, similar to Brandon Weeden, the 22nd pick last year (Browns).

Trufant must be careful. If he elects to hold out for a protracted amount of time, Alford could win the job. The spot could end up being a weak link on a defense that is not exactly the team's strong point.
Unless they make a move, the Falcons are guaranteed to enter the season with a right tackle who has never started an NFL game at that position. Out of OTAs and minicamp, the leader was Mike Johnson, a four-year pro and third-round pick out of Alabama.

Johnson, who played guard in college, was hampered by injuries early in his career; but last season, he rose on the depth chart to become the top reserve among the offensive linemen, winning the job as the "jumbo" tight end.

His chief competition involves Lamar Holmes, a significantly larger tackle selected in Round 3 last year. Atlanta likes the footwork of Holmes (one career NFL game), who suffered an injury in the early part of last season, hindering his development.

This position will be key in helping protect Matt Ryan and keeping the quarterback healthy — a must if the Falcons are to achieve their objectives this season.
Technically, Garrett Reynolds and Johnson are the two chief combatants here, but if Johnson wins the job at right tackle, then right guard would seemingly fall to Reynolds, by default.

The Falcons were hoping that Phillipkeith Manley, an undrafted free agent out of Toledo, would compete at this spot, but Manley might have ruined his chances after showing up overweight at OTAs.

Another long-shot possibility is Harland Gunn, an undrafted free agent out of Miami. If Johnson wins the right tackle job, the Falcons must hope Reynolds rebounds from a back injury — similar to that of left tackle Sam Baker (career year in 2012 after back surgery).

A fifth-round pick out of North Carolina in 2009, Reynolds has started 13 games at right guard over the last two seasons. However, he was replaced both years, due to ineffectiveness or injury.
This will be Tony Gonzalez's final NFL season. He has already made that loud and clear. However, it remains to be seen who will assume the role as Gonzalez's understudy this year, leading to a potential starring role with the Falcons in 2014.

A slew of candidates will audition for the part. Rookie Levine Toilolo, all 6-foot-8 of him, could be a project. Chase Coffman could represent a more finished product — his highlight-reel catch during last year's playoffs (vs. Seattle) was something to behold — but his blocking needs to improve.

Tommy Gallarda, who played nine games with the Falcons last year before a shoulder injury ended his season, also has a shot. Also in the mix are Colin Cloherty (Brown University), whom the Falcons signed during the offseason.

Cloherty spent some time with Jacksonville in 2011 when current Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter held the same job with the Jaguars.

Cornerback Dominique Franks returned a few punts last season, yielding mixed results.

Harry Douglas has also performed punt-return duties in the past, but the Falcons seem reluctant to hand him the role on a full-time basis — given Douglas's value as a No. 3 receiver. (He blew out his ACL in training camp during routine passing drills in 2009.)

As a result, the rookie Alford could make for an enticing possibility. He’s fast and has experience handling kicks — returning one punt for a 75-yard touchdown last season (against Lamar).