Five position battles to watch at Falcons’ training camp

Punt and kickoff return spot will be hotly contested

Falcons coach Dan Quinn, with a fresh new contract extension that runs through 2022, will welcome 90 players and is holding out hope that a 91st player shows up by the 4 p.m. deadline on Thursday.

Star wide receiver Julio Jones would be that player, who is reportedly set to hold out of training camp in a contract dispute.

The Falcons signed cornerback Terrance Parks Wednesday to push the roster up to 91 players. The team has a foreign player exemption for tight end Alex Gray, the former rugby star from London.

Parks, 28, of Fairburn, most recently played in the NFL in 2015, when he was a member of the Falcons’ practice squad. Parks, who played at Creekside High with Chiefs All-Pro safety Eric Berry, has also spent time with Seattle and Houston.

The Falcons, who finished in third place in the NFC South at 10-6 and went to the playoffs last season, are hoping to post a third straight 10-win season, return to the playoffs and win Super Bowl LIII on their home field.

Here are five position battles to watch at Falcons’ training camp:

1. Returner: The Falcons put a major emphasis on improving their special teams over the offseason. The key spot of kickoff and punt returner is vacant after the Falcons elected not to re-sign Andre Roberts.

Wide receiver Justin Hardy, who has the respect and trust of the coaching staff, is the leading candidate.

Hardy enters his fourth year in the league and returned three kickoffs in 2016.

In college at East Carolina, Hardy returned 63 punts for 495 yards.

The Falcons had wide receivers Marvin Hall, Calvin Ridley, Reggie Davis, running back Ito Smith and cornerback Isaiah Oliver returning punts during the offseason.

Oliver is an accomplished punt returner, but he must earn the trust of special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. He had 20 punt returns for 174 yards and a touchdown in college. He returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown against UCLA on Nov. 3, 2016.

Davis returned punts and kickoffs at Georgia. He had 47 kickoff returns form 998 yards for a 21.2 average per return. He also returned 34 punts for 251 yards and one touchdown, a 70-yarder against Tennessee on Oct. 10, 2015.

Hardy would be the steady choice at punt returner, while Davis’ speed would make him a dangerous kickoff returner.

2. Nickel/dime back: The Falcons have several options and potential combinations for their nickel (five defensive  backs) and dime (six defensive backs) schemes

Brian Poole, the nickel back for the past three seasons, will get some competition from Damontae Kazee. Oliver and safety Ron Parker give the Falcons even more options at nickel and dime back.

The addition of Parker will allow the Falcons to play a “big” nickel with three safeties.

3. Right guard: The spot was the weak link along the offensive line last season. Wes Schweitzer beat out Ben Garland and started 16 games.

The Falcons contend that Schweitzer improved over the course of the season, but signed veteran right guard Brandon Fusco to a three-year, $12.75 million deal.

Both Fusco and Schweitzer spent time with the first-team unit over the offseason, while Garland played left tackle for the injured Andy Levitre.

Garland and Schweitzer combined to surrender 46 total pressures, with Garland also playing 341 snaps in relief at left guard for Levitre.

Fusco has started 80 of 83 NFL games he’s played for the Vikings and 49ers. He started all 16 games at right guard for the 49ers last season.

“He’s a smart, tough football player who can move,” offensive line coach Chris Morgan said. “He’s played a lot of good ball in this league.”

The Falcons also have Jamil Douglas and Sean Harlow, a former fourth-round pick, and undrafted rookie Salesi Uhatafe.

4. Fullback: The Falcons have three inexperience players competing for the fullback position in Daniel Marx, Luke McNitt and Ricky Ortiz.

New running backs coach Bernie Parmalee wants to see the fullbacks in a physical setting.

“When you put the pads on you can take that technique-work and put the physical aspect and the technique together,” Parmalee said.

Marx, who’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, is a strong lead blocker.

McNitt played quarterback and tight end at Nebraska-Kearney before transferring to Nebraska. He’s listed at 6-2 and 249 pounds.

Ortiz, who played at Oregon State, was signed as a rookie free agent by Baltimore after the 2017 draft. He was on the Ravens’ practice squad last season. He is listed 6-foot and 236 pounds.

If the three players fail to impress, the Falcons will scan the waiver wire to see if any veteran fullbacks are cut at roster trimming time.

5. Weakside linebacker: The Falcons are confident that Duke Riley, a former third-round pick, can step up at the position after a rocky rookie season.

The Falcons drafted rookie Foye Oluokun, out of Yale in the sixth round.

“He’s looking good,” linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “He’s got all of the stuff that you can’t coach. He’s fast. He’s explosive. He’s got tremendous length.”

Oluokun appears headed for special teams duties, but if Riley slips, the Falcons will need some help.

“He’s running a lot,” Ulbrich said. “He’s soaking it all up. He’s tremendously smart and bright. He doesn’t repeat mistakes and he’s very eager. It will be fun to see where he can go.”

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