The first step in the march to training camp began this week when the Falcons began offseason training activities. While the practice sessions are light and educational in nature, the position battles that we will see in camp start here. Veterans on the squad welcome in the new Rookie Club and the foundation of the team is built during OTAs. The improvement of the pass rush and the pass protection qualify as major storylines in training camp, but until then, let’s review five under-the-radar storylines that may begin to take shape during OTAs and on into training camp later this summer.
1) Under-the-Radar Rusher: Improving the pass rush is hardly an under-the-radar development, but unearthing an under-the-radar pass rusher certainly is. While Jonathan Massaqoui enters his third season and continues to improve, is there another player on the roster that could chip in a solid rotational five sacks? Tyler Starr was the final player drafted in this year’s Rookie Club, but with a little coaching and Mike Nolan’s creative use of a defense, he could turn into a valued specialist. He dominated his competition at South Dakota and at rookie minicamp, he, at the very least, showed a motor that doesn’t stop.
2) Next Linebacker to Emerge: If you saw Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu coming in May last year, congratulations. The training camp numbers game says there will be an exciting competition for roster spots at linebacker and Yawin Smallwood could be this year’s sleeper linebacker. Smallwood, when the college season ended, was believed to be a top-100 player in the 2014 NFL Draft, but an injury at the Combine derailed the physical aspects of his draft interview process. In college, all Smallwood did was produce, every game, every season for three years. He’s scheme versatile and thrived at UConn rushing the passer and defending the run and pass. There will be times this season when four (or more?) linebackers are on the field. We may be saying the name of a new rookie linebacker next season and Smallwood has a real chance to be that guy.
3) Bounce Back for Moore: After the 2013 season ended, safety William Moore performed his media duty during locker room availability as players cleaned out their lockers. That alone was commendable, but Moore spoke passionately about the humbling experience that was last season and sounded determined to return in 2014 with a vengeance. Moore will be playing with a new running mate at safety for the first time in his career and a leadership role is in his future. Moore’s 2013 wasn’t up to his 2012 Pro Bowl standards and there’s no question the sixth-year safety will be playing with something to prove. This year’s OTAs mark the beginning of Moore getting ready.
4) More Touches for Douglas : With the Falcons offense missing valuable pieces off and on for much of last season, Harry Douglas stepped up and delivered a career year. The exit of Tony Gonzalez means his touches will go elsewhere. More passes to Douglas out of the slot in conjunction with Julio Jones and Roddy White healthy and back in their prominent roles, could equal more big plays for the offense.
5) Swing Tackle in Demand: Behind Sam Baker and Jake Matthews on the ends of the offensive line, the swing tackle role will be up for grabs. Lamar Holmes, Ryan Schraeder and Mike Johnson all will have a say in who wins the job. Johnson has experience in the Falcons’ jumbo sets, but Holmes earned valuable experience last season at left and right tackle. Should an injury crop up this season, the depth at backup tackle could prove necessary.