5 Falcons position battles

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons released their first “unofficial” depth chart of 2009 this week, but coach Mike Smith isn’t putting much stock in it this early in the preseason.

He wants to see some action in game-like settings, and while the entire offense appears set, the defense is not, and “there are a bunch of battles” among those players, said Smith, who will start to get answers when the Falcons face the Detroit Lions at 4 p.m. Saturday at Ford Field.

“I think there are going to be a number of interesting things to come out of this weekend,” Smith said.

Here’s a look at five position battles:

Strongside linebacker

2008 starters: Michael Boley and Coy Wire. Boley left during free agency. Wire started down the stretch, but came off the field in passing situations. Wire averaged eight tackles in three of the last four games.

Challengers: Stephen Nicholas and Wire. Nicholas was listed at No. 1 on the depth chart. He’s off to a good start in training camp. It’s the third-year player’s position to lose.

Surprise: Jamie Winborn was signed on the first day of training camp. He’s a veteran and could fill the spot if Nicholas and Wire do not pan out.

Left cornerback

2008 starter: Domonique Foxworth left during free agency when he received a lucrative deal from his hometown team, the Baltimore Ravens. He knocked down 11 passes and had one interception last season.

Challengers: Brent Grimes opened last season as a starter, but couldn’t reclaim his spot after coming back from a knee sprain.

Surprise: Christopher Owens, the third-round pick from San Jose State, has a chance to snag the starting spot. “Chris Owens is going to get an opportunity to play quite a bit,” Smith said.

Defensive end

2008 starter: Jamaal Anderson has been steady over his first two seasons, but hasn’t produced the big plays that are expected from a player picked eighth pick in the draft. He has two sacks in two seasons. Smith wants at least six or seven from the end opposite John Abraham.

Challengers: Chauncey Davis had four sacks last season and also is steady at the point of attack. He’s getting cross-trained at defensive tackle, but could end up the starter instead of Anderson.

Surprise: Rookie Lawrence Sidbury will get extensive action. He’s trying to make the leap up from Richmond to the NFL. The fourth-round pick has a shot to win the designated rusher spot opposite of Abraham in passing situations.

Nose tackle

2008 starter: Grady Jackson signed with Detroit in the offseason after filling his role as a run stuffer.

Challengers: Peria Jerry, the team’s first-round pick, is No. 1 on the depth chart. But playing time at nose tackle is highly competitive.

Surprise: Veteran Thomas Johnson has been cut by three teams, but he is having a strong training camp. “He can really get off on the ball,” Smith said. “He’s one of our stronger players.”

Punt-returner

2008 starter: Harry Douglas is out for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. He averaged 11.9 yards per return and was just starting to blossom.

Challengers: Brent Grimes is Shippenburg’s all-time punt-return leader, with 82 returns for 1,126 yards.

Surprise: Eric Weems and Chandler Williams also will get shots to win the job. “We’ll just rotate those guys through the game and through the preseason games and see how they handle it in pressure situations,” Smith said.