Falcons’ full starting lineup nearly set

Brandon Fusco, the team’s major offseason free agency pickup, responds to being named the Falcons' starting right guard. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

Fullback, kickoff and punt returner spots to be determined

Nearly all of the Falcons’ starters are set for the regular-season opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn named Brandon Fusco, the teams’ major offseason free agency pickup, as the team’s starting right guard on Tuesday.

Wes Schweitzer, who started all 18 games last season, will shift to the backup swing guard and backup center, Quinn said.

“Fusco has certainly done a good job to have earned that spot,” Quinn said. “What a competitive battle between him and Wes. That’s why you will see Wes some more at center moving forward. As an interior player, Wes has the ability to play center, right guard and left guard. He’ll be an important part of what we do. I love his competitive style.”

Fusco, 30, was signed to a three-year, $12.5 million contract. He started all 16 games with the 49ers last season.

Fusco, who started his career with the Vikings, has played in 83 NFL games and made 80 starts.

“I’m excited,” Fusco said. “It’s been a long journey. It’s not easy coming from a new team to another, but these guys really made it easy for me. We have a good group of guys ... that work together and showed me the way.”

Fusco was drafted by the Vikings in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL draft out of Slippery Rock. The 6-foot-4 and 302-pounder gives the Falcons a veteran presence.

Fusco was a salary cap casualty with the Vikings after the 2016 season. He did not return to form that season in a move back to the right side after a disappointing year at left guard in 2015.

He signed on with the 49ers for 2017.

“It’s been a long journey from the little school of Slippery Rock, right outside of Pittsburgh,” Fusco said. “It’s been a heck of a ride. Hopefully, it keeps going for a little while. I’ve just been blessed to be around good people and good coaches to help me along the way.”

Fusco didn’t mind competing with Schweitzer for the position.

“It’s always about competition,” Fusco said. “You’re not going to get anything handed to you. I respect that a lot.”

Center Alex Mack is looking forward to working next to Fusco, who’ll be flank to his right by tackle Ryan Schraeder.

“He’s done a great job of showing up and being ready to work,” Mack said. “He’s fit in right from square one. He’s kind of picking up the offense at a high level. I think the work has been put in, now it’s time to go out there and perform.”

Schweitzer, who had a tough time against top-tier defensive tackles, received a 43.7 grade for his play in 2017 from  football analytics website, profootballfocus.com. His grade was 56th of guards. Schweitzer also struggled in pass protection at times and that was a key factor in the decision.

“It was very close against both Brandon and Wes,” Quinn said. “Wes has significantly improved from last season. I think when we got into the last few (exhibition) season games really, what we saw from a protection standpoint from Brandon played out from what we saw last year. So, that was really part of the deciding factor.”

The Falcons are not ready to give up on Schweitzer, who is 24. Left guard Andy Levitre and Mack are both 32.

“He consistently grades amongst the highest on the team in terms of our (competitive toughness) cores,” Quinn said. He always represents that for us.”

Schweitzer was drafted in the sixth round (195th overall) of the 2016 draft. He played tackle in college at San Jose State and the Falcons converted him to a guard.

Schweitzer did not play in any games in 2016 while making the conversion to the new position. After Chris Chester retired after the Super Bowl, he won a battle with Ben Garland to be the starting right guard last season.

Now, he has to learn how to play backup center, too.

“Yeah, extra reps at center,” Quinn said. “That’s what we did the other night in the game, I thought he looked good doing it. Which is not that easy to do. The level that I thought he played at center was really good right off the bat.”

The Falcons still must decide on the kickoff and punt returners for the season and the fullback. Quinn said he has his returner in mind, but didn’t want to share the name at this time.

“I don’t think we’ll do a committee all year,” Quinn said. “I’d like to have more certainty than they. I have a pretty good idea about where I’m heading now, but I’d like to not give it away in terms of the season and who’s going to be preparing against (us). I’m pretty well squared away on the decision for that.”

First-round draft pick Calvin Ridley has looked dynamic as the kickoff returner, while others have struggled. Marvin Hall is a possibility, too. Justin Hardy appears to be the most dependable of the punt returner candidates.

“Every guy that I’ve been here with, I was with Hest (Devin Hester), with (Eric) Weems and last year with Dre (Andre Roberts),” Hardy said. “All of them were great returners. Just being around them, just seeing how they set the blocks up, how they catch the ball. I used to be a sponge around them. … I’ll go out there and give them 110 percent, every time that I’m out there.”

Ricky Ortiz and Jalston Fowler are in a battle for the fullback position. The Falcons will also watch the waiver wire after teams cut down to 53 players to see if they can upgrade the position.

Both are strong lead-blockers.

“We’ll probably play our fullback, probably somewhere between 20 to 25 percent of the snaps on offense,” Quinn said. “So, how can he contribute on game day to make an impact that way? Ortiz has done a nice job so far on (special) teams and Fowler will certainly have a chance to get some of that this Thursday (exhibition finale) as well.”