The biggest being the health of Julio Jones. Jones is recovering from a foot injury that cost him the final 11 games of the 2013 season and has been rested for all of the offseason.
While the word all offseason long has been that the team is resting Jones in preparation for training camp, there is no guarantee that he’ll even see much action when camp does arrive.
The Falcons have been clear that they won’t rush Jones back, which could lead to him missing all or most of the preseason if he’s not 100 percent within the first week or two of camp. Expectations are that Jones will return for the regular season opener against the New Orleans Saints, but the Falcons probably won’t risk jeopardizing that even if it means playing Jones at 98 percent.
That translates to the possibility that Jones will sit out all of the preseason with the possible exception of the third game against the Tennessee Titans. If Jones is not 100 percent by mid-August, it likely means that he will skip that Titans game and go into the regular season with limited work in pads.
In the meantime, the Falcons should have Roddy White and Harry Douglas to fill any void. White also missed much of the offseason as he was dealing with a family matters due to the murder of his brother. But expectations are that White will be back for training camp and may have a new contract as well.
Douglas is coming off a career-high season in which he led the Falcons in receptions and yards. His play this summer will be a big factor as he is the team’s primary option to fill the void left by the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons are expected to employ three wide receivers significantly more to try and compensate for Gonzalez’s loss. Douglas played in 59 percent of the team’s offensive plays in 2012, but that figure increased to 86 percent in 2013 (per premium website Pro Football Focus). It’s likely that his workload in 2014 will mirror his 2013 one.
If Jones misses significant time this summer, it should lead to more offensive reps for both Devin Hester and Darius Johnson. Johnson got the bulk of first-team work during OTAs with White and Jones sidelined, but it could also be an opportunity for the Falcons to try and get Hester up to speed in the offense quicker. The team envisions Hester as a return specialist first and a wide receiver a distant second but the more time he receives on offense this summer, the stronger the Falcons depth will be.
Johnson is by no means a lock to make the roster, although his late-season surge where he surpassed Drew Davis as the team’s third wide receiver makes him a relatively safer bet. Assuming he doesn’t struggle and picks up where he left off last year, he should have a relatively easy road to the fourth or fifth spot on the depth chart.
Like Jones, Davis may too miss most of training camp. He will open up camp on the team’s Physically-Unable-to-Perform list due to a foot injury. Projections indicate he should be ready to return by mid-August, but that could lead to him only receiving action in the Falcons’ final preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. If that is the case, then it will be harder for Davis to make the roster because it gives others greater opportunities.
Davis’ primary role this season was going to be as a gunner on punt coverage, but the Falcons added veteran free agent Courtney Roby, who is more than capable of winning that job in Davis’ absence. Roby offers little offensively, but having spent a couple of years captaining the Saints’ special teams unit improves the chances he could make the roster as the last receiver on the depth chart.
The Falcons will likely carry five or six receivers on the roster with a quintet of undrafted rookies on the outside looking in.
Bernard Reedy impressed the most during OTAs, but will be hard-pressed to leapfrog any of the players ahead of him unless he can carve out a significant role on special teams. With Hester returning kicks, Reedy’s best chance of making the team will be to prove that his limited size is not a liability on coverage units.
The same can be same of the similarly small-statured Tramaine Thompson, who also has return abilities.
Geraldo Boldewijn has rare size relative to the rest of the Falcons receiver corps, which could help him stand out. Julian Jones and Freddie Martino have the speed to help them earn a spot on special teams coverage.
In the case of all five rookies, they are likely destined for a practice squad spot even with strong performances this summer.