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An Early Look at Key Training Camp Battles on Atlanta Falcons Defense

May 31st, 2014
ICON SMI

Peria Jerry

After taking a look at the key roster battles that will take place this summer on the Atlanta Falcons offense, it’s time we take a look at the defensive side of the ball.

Like the offense, the Falcons defensive starting lineup is relatively settled with much of the competition coming at depth positions.

Unlike the offense, the possibility that the Falcons look to bolster many positions with veteran additions at the end of camp is low. It could happen, if injuries become a problem, but for the most part the added presence of recent draft picks at several positions means the team has a vested interest in getting young guys more opportunities.

Defensive Tackle

The team signed Paul Soliai to a large contract, making him their starter at nose tackle. He will be joined by incumbents Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters. The only question among the three of them is whether or not Peters’ recovery from a late-season Achilles tear will force him to miss significant time in training camp. If so, he could wind up starting the year on the Physically-Unable-to-Perform (PUP) list, potentially opening up an opportunity and roster spot for someone else at the position.

Peria Jerry would appreciate that greatly, as he’s the most experienced remaining option at the position but on the bubble as far as his roster spot goes. He’ll need a strong summer to retain his job, with Ra’Shede Hageman, Cliff Matthews, and Travian Robertson also vying for time at the position. This summer is Robertson’s last chance to make the roster, but Peters’ absence opens up the possibility for the team needing more depth at nose tackle, which benefits Robertson.

Like Robertson, Matthews may be entering his final summer with the Falcons given their investment in Hagemen. A competent special teams player, Matthews will need to make more plays on defense this summer to prove he’s worth retaining for the Falcons.

Undrafted rookie Donte Rumph is a long shot to leap frog any of them for a roster spot, but given his size, a good summer could merit a practice squad position to prompt development down the road.

Defensive End

Tyson Jackson and Malliciah Goodman can be considered locks for roster spot. Jackson will be a starter, and Goodman’s performance this summer will determine whether or not he earns significant playing time in the regular season. There’s an outside possibility he could win the starting spot opposite Jackson if he performs at an exceedingly high level.

Hageman and Matthews will also get looks here, and undrafted rookie Nosa Eguae is also in the mix. But like Rumph, Eguae is likely looking at a practice squad spot if he has a strong enough summer.

Edge Rusher

A distinction deserves to be made between defensive end and edge-rusher since this position will largely be a situational role. Osi Umenyiora is the incumbent, but will get pushed by third-year player Jonathan Massaquoi. Expectations are fairly high that Massaquoi will carve out a significant role and possibly the starting spot. Umenyiora might be on the bubble if that is the case, but given his experience the team is unlikely to part ways with him. In all likelihood one of them will be the every-down edge rusher, with the other likely entering the game in sub-packages the Falcons are likely to employ more than 60 percent of the time.

Second-year pass-rusher Stansly Maponga is also in the mix for playing time. After a lackluster preseason a year ago, he will be expected to show significant gains. If so, then he should be relatively safe on the roster given the team’s overall lack of quality pass-rushers.

Undrafted rookies Walker May and Jacques Smith may be in the mix here, as well as drafted picks Prince Shembo and Tyler Starr, but all four are likely to get most of their reps at linebacker.

Outside Linebacker

Kroy Biermann is the incumbent for the strong-side linebacker position, as he recovers from an Achilles tear that sidelined him early in 2013. He’ll be pushed by rookies Shembo and Starr, along with Joplo Bartu, who mostly filled in for him last year. But Bartu is likely to be dubbed the fill-in for Sean Weatherspoon at weak-side linebacker, preventing him from earning enough reps to really push Biermann.

Undrafted rookies Smith and May will also receive work here, but are likely looking at practice squad spots at best given the players ahead of them. Shembo and Starr have the chance to push for the starting spot with strong summers, but most likely are vying for a reserve spot and opportunities to play on special teams.

Inside Linebacker

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Akeem Dent

Paul Worrilow is expected to return as the starting middle linebacker, and whenever he proves healthy, Sean Weatherspoon will be the team’s starter on the weak side. But Weatherspoon could potentially miss significant time in training camp, prompting Bartu to garner serious reps here. Rookie Marquis Spruill will be pushing Bartu at the spot, but likely won’t surpass him. Spruill’s play on special teams will likely determine how much playing time he earns during the regular season.

Behind Worrilow will be Akeem Dent and Yawin Smallwood, competing for top backup duties. Dent’s stock has dipped since last year, but he has experience on his side and proven special teams ability. Smallwood will need to perform well in the latter area to prompt a move up the depth chart. The team may be able to afford to only keep one of them given the potential that Spruill and Shembo may also get looks here and potentially add depth.

Undrafted rookie Brenden Daley is also in the mix in the middle, but will likely be looking at a practice squad spot only with a good summer.

Cornerback

The Falcons brought in veteran Josh Wilson to potentially push second-year man Robert Alford for the starting spot at right cornerback, but it’s Alford’s job to lose and he’s unlikely to do so.

Instead, Wilson will likely be competing for the nickel cornerback job with incumbent Robert McClain and fellow free-agent signee Javier Arenas. All three have experience in the slot, but McClain is likely to keep the job.

Fifth-round selection Ricardo Allen is likely to be in the mix as well, but his main focus will be showcasing special teams ability as that will be his best avenue to make the team as a fifth or sixth corner. Special teams may hold the key at this position, with both McClain and Arenas being more proven options in that avenue. Wilson and Allen might be competing for just one remaining roster spot with special teams ability possibly becoming the tie-breaker.

Desmond Trufant is safe as the starting left cornerback, while undrafted rookie Devonta Glover-Wright and Jordan Mabin are looking at practice squad spots rather than the final 53.

Safety

William Moore is locked in at the starting strong safety position, while Dwight Lowery is likely to win the starting spot opposite him at free safety. But Lowery will be pushed by third-round pick Dezmen Southward, although in all likelihood the Falcons will settle with Southward being depth.

One concern is the health of backup strong safety Zeke Motta, who like Peters is a strong candidate to begin the summer and possibly regular season on the PUP list. If he’s absent, that bodes well for Kemal Ishmael, who saw limited playing time last year as a rookie. If Ishmael can take advantage of the time missed by Motta and show improvement on defense, he’ll be a strong bet to make the final roster.

Motta’s potential absence also gives greater opportunities to Sean Baker and Kimario McFadden. Baker spent time on the Falcons’ practice squad last season while McFadden is an undrafted free agent. Both players will be looking to make their mark on special teams in order to have an outside shot at the final 53.

If healthy, Motta has a very good chance of making the final roster.

Special Teams

Kicker Matt Bryant and long snapper Josh Harris won’t receive any competition during training camp, leaving punter Matt Bosher as the only one that will have to fight off another player.

But undrafted punter Matt Yoklic is unlikely to unseat the fourth-year veteran in Bosher and instead will be competing to display his skills to the other 31 teams in the hope that someone picks him up at the end of camp on the waiver wire.

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