The Falcons’ first exhibition game is against Tennessee at 7 p.m. Aug. 13 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Falcons are set to have joint practices with the Miami Dolphins the following week.
Smith and his assistant coaches repeatedly have stated that the best players will play, and the competition is expected to be fierce across the board.
“I hope the competition is going to be hot,” Smith said. “Guys have to earn their job. It’s a constant evaluation.”
There are some players, such as quarterback Matt Ryan, left tackle Jake Matthews, linebacker Deion Jones and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who are strong incumbents.
“Obviously, with some more than others that you can probably pencil in,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s a far reach to say, ‘Hey, Jake Matthews is going to be our left tackle.’ But there is going to be competition just about everywhere, and if Jake isn’t performing, then you have to play the best player. I really hope it’s a competitive camp and they understand that every job is open.”
Here’s a look at the five position battles to watch when training camp opens:
1. Defensive line: After Jarrett and Tyeler Davison, the Falcons need some help along the defensive line.
Smith concurred with the notion that the competition along the defensive line should be intense.
“I’m looking forward to those matchups in there,” Smith said.
The Falcons drafted Ta’Quon Graham, who was a four-year starter at Texas, and have Marlon Davidson, who was a second-round pick in 2020, but had a bumpy rookie season.
“Both of those guys, they work,” Smith said. “They’re at different points in their careers.”
Davidson played in only eight games and recorded only eight tackles last season. He’s getting a clean slate with the new regime.
“It’s hard to judge – last year was a really unusual year for a lot of rookies,” Smith said. “It’s hard enough to be a rookie in the NFL. Then dealing with everything, it was much harder for a lot of people around the world and in this country dealing with the pandemic. So, it was an unusual offseason. Everybody gets a fresh start here.”
Davidson had a strong offseason.
“Marlon has been working hard,” Smith said. “All of these guys just want to improve.”
Graham, a fifth-round pick, played in 48 games and made 24 starts for the Longhorns.
“TQ, he’s a mature guy,” Smith said. “We’ve enjoyed getting to work with him so far. I’m excited to see – you get a better evaluation, especially with the big guys, when we get into training camp and you’re actually running run schemes and blocking and you have pads on.”
2. Center: Anticipating that they could not re-sign Alex Mack because of cap restraints this offseason, the Falcons drafted Matt Hennessy in the third round in 2020.
Without the benefit of offseason activities last year, Hennessy opened the season rotating with James Carpenter at left guard. He played in 13 games and made two starts. He played 225 offensive snaps (20%) and held his own.
Hennessy, who’s 6-foot-4 and 307 pounds, did have one false start and four total penalties.
The Falcons drafted center Drew Dalman, who’s 6-3 and 299 pounds, in the fourth round (114th overall) this year. He’s the son of former Falcons assistant coach and NFL player Chris Dalman and is expected to compete for the starting position.
3. Left guard: Since the retirement of Andy Levitre after the 2018 season, the Falcons have had a revolving door at left guard.
Carpenter was the opening-game starter in 2019 and 2020, but couldn’t stay healthy. He started 11 games in 2019 and 13 in 2020, but he was released over the offseason to create an opening.
Jamon Brown, Wes Schweitzer, Justin McCray and Matt Gono spent time at left guard over the past two seasons.
The Falcons have several options, including the loser of the Hennessey vs. Dalman battle for center. They also used Josh Andrews, a free-agent signee, and rookie Jalen Mayfield at left guard over the offseason. Gono figures in the battle at right tackle, but new offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford said he plans to play the best five players.
Andrews, 29, has been working since 2014 to stick with an NFL team.
The Oregon State product has honed his craft behind Eagles linemen Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and the legendary nine-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters. He also played behind Colts linemen Ryan Kelly, Braden Smith and three-time All-Pro player Quenton Nelson.
“It’s my dream to start in this league,” Andrews said. “I feel like I can do that. I’m a veteran now, it feels strange to say, but I feel like I can come in hitting the ground running and take that spot. That’s my goal, to come in and compete, make the team better. I feel like I can do that.”
4. Right tackle: Kaleb McGary, who was not present at two of the three open OTAs and the mandatory minicamp, is the incumbent at right tackle.
McGary is a mauler in the run game, but has had trouble with speed rushers. He played 891 offensive snaps (79%), had one penalty and gave up four sacks. He received an overall grade of 64.3 from Pro Football Focus.com for the 2020 season.
He will be challenged by Gono and Mayfield for the starting position.
Gono, who had an undisclosed offseason surgery according to ESPN, signed his $3.284 million restricted free-agent tender this offseason. He played in all 16 games last season and made four starts. He played 337 offensive snaps. He also played 80 snaps on special teams.
The Falcons wanted to protect Gono, who started at right tackle and left guard, by placing a high tender on a formerly undrafted player.
Gono originally signed with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent out of Wesley College following the 2018 NFL draft. He was the backup swing tackle behind Matthews and McGary to open last season.
Mayfield, who played at Michigan, is a promising rookie who was projected to go much higher than the third round in the draft.
Mayfield, who’s 6-foot-5 and 328 pounds, played mostly right tackle in college. Experienced in all run schemes, Mayfield needs to improve his drive blocking by getting lower.
“He has starting potential, but it might take some time,” according to NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein.
5. Right cornerback: Last season, Isaiah Oliver opened the season at right cornerback when Kendall Sheffield couldn’t beat him out initially. Sheffield took over before Darqueze Dennard won the spot and Oliver was moved to nickel back.
Fabian Moreau was signed in free agency and lined up at right cornerback over the offseason.
“I picked Atlanta because it’s an opportunity to play and showcase my talent,” Moreau said. “To just contribute any way that I can. I just see myself as a physical corner. Just being able to showcase my ability against some top receivers.”
The Falcons’ new regime elected to move on from the top four safeties – Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Damontae Kazee and Sharrod Neasman -- and two cornerbacks in Dennard and Blidi Wreh-Wilson.
Sheffield and Oliver remain and are competitors for the spot. Also, the Falcons drafted Darren Hall in the fourth round out of San Diego State.
Moreau, 27, mainly has been a special-teams player. He’s played in 60 games and made 18 starts.
The Falcons ranked last in pass defense in 2020, allowing 293.6 yards passing per game.
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