Training camp position analysis — Atlanta

BucsBlitz.com is committed to keeping its readers up on not only the Buccaneers but on the Bucs' NFC South rivals. Beginning today and for the next three days, BucsBlitz will publish a position-by-position analysis on Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans. Today, it's the Atlanta Falcons.


QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Michael Vick. Backups -- Joey Harrington, D.J. Shockley, Chris Redman.

A key issue will be how Vick manages learning and executing the new scheme while dealing with the ongoing dog fighting investigation. Though Vick has used the practice field as a safe haven during the off-season, the specter of the investigation will remain until there is some sort of resolution (federal officials indicted Vick on Tuesday). Vick is a strong-willed person who has kept things together so far and maintained the faith of his teammates with his diligence and work ethic. Harrington was late getting into the mix but he's rapidly picking up the new system. He has said he loves this offense and, after nearly two full years away from Detroit, he has regained his passion to succeed. Though Redman played for Petrino at Louisville and the two share a bond, Shockley is well liked and viewed as a player the Falcons would like to develop for the future.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters – Warrick Dunn, FB Ovie Mughelli. Backups -- Jerious Norwood, Jamal Robertson, Jason Snelling, FB Corey McIntyre.

Dunn has been at his career best the past three seasons, showing the burst and shiftiness to garner big chunks of yardage and positive gains on nearly every carry. He is coming off of shoulder surgery and his durability has become an issue. Mughelli was brought on to help clear potential tacklers out of the way and protect Dunn as well as churn out the tough yards the Falcons have struggled to gain the past two seasons. Norwood might end up being a more ideal fit for Petrino's offense, because of his size, breakaway speed and hands. There is little doubt he will bear more of a load than he did last season. McIntyre is a sledgehammer that will be used to spell Mughelli. The other reserves will be used mainly on special teams or as developmental/scout teamers should they make the roster.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Alge Crumpler. Backups -- Dwayne Blakley, Daniel Fells, Martrez Milner.

Crumpler had off-season knee surgery and did not participate in any offseason team camps or workouts in order to rehabilitate and properly heal. Crumpler could be the x-factor in Petrino's offense. He could be used in a traditional alignment, flexed out wide or in the slot and be incorporated as an H-back. Crumpler's versatility could earn him yet another trip to the Pro Bowl and make this offense really click. Blakley must still improve on his run blocking but he is a solid pass receiver who should see his playing time increase in passing situations. The coaching staff is very high on Fells, who made the team as an undrafted rookie last season. Milner is a very good blocker who could develop into a Chris Cooley type H-back if he improves on the receiving end.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Joe Horn, Michael Jenkins. Backups -- Roddy White, Laurent Robinson, Fred Gibson, Adam Jennings.

Horn brings some sense of credibility to the team's most unpolished unit. The Falcons have not had a true No. 1 receiver in years and his durability will be hugely important. Injuries have cut short his past two seasons but he said he is totally healthy -- and motivated. Jenkins caught seven touchdowns last season, but like most of the receivers, he was inconsistent. White is the biggest enigma on the team. Incredibly gifted, the 2005 first-round pick has been a bust so far because of his frequent drops that have spawned doubts about his reliability. If he doesn't improve, Robinson, a speed-burning rookie from Illinois State or Gibson, who impressed in offseason workouts, could take his spot.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Wayne Gandy, LG Justin Blalock, C Todd McClure, RG Kynan Forney, RT Todd Weiner. Backups -- LT Frank Omiyale, LG Toniu Fonoti, C Doug Datish, RG Tyson Clabo, RT Quinn Ojinnaka.

The drafting of Blalock was made to help the Falcons establish a more solid interior presence in the run game and in pass protection. Gandy still has something left in the tank but he needs to sustain his production better than he did late last season. Over the final four games, he struggled in pass protection when teams sent players off the edge. Forney returns from a shoulder injury that kept him off the field for much of the season. He has been the best one-on-one drive blocker, and, if healthy, could are well in Petrino's more traditional blocking scheme. Weiner is very solid and could be even more of a force at the heavier weight, which he prefers.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Jamaal Anderson, LT Jonathan Babineaux, NT Grady Jackson, RE John Abraham. Backups -- LE Chauncey Davis, LT David Patterson, NT Darrell Shropshire, RE Paul Carrington, Josh Mallard.

With standout pass-rushing tackle Rod Coleman possibly out for four games after rupturing his quadriceps in a watercraft accident, the front, especially on the left side, is vulnerable. Anderson is going to have to deliver immediately. Coleman's backup, Jonathan Babineaux, has been very productive in rotational situations, but he is undersized and might not be able to withstand the prolonged grind. Jackson's return should solidify the interior run defense -- if he's in decent enough condition after missing most of the team's offseason workouts and conditioning sessions because of a legal dispute with the franchise. Abraham is a dominant pass rusher and is better against the run than he's given credit for -- when he's healthy. Abraham's durability will be a constant concern since he's been so injury prone. Davis, Carrington and Mallard provide excellent depth at the ends.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Demorrio Williams, MLB Keith Brooking, SLB Michael Boley. Backups -- WLB Orlando Huff, WLB Stephen Nicholas, MLB Jordan Beck, SLB Marcus Wilkins.

This is the most athletic unit on the team, however, this will never be mistaken as a physically brutish trio. This group works more on speed and getting into position before they can get blocked, not by crushing blockers and ball carriers. Williams missed all offseason workouts after tearing his right pectoral lifting weights. Already undersized, the inability to get stronger in the weight room could work against him. Brooking remains in the middle and his ability to go sideline-to-sideline will be maximized in a variety of schemes, according to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Boley is one of the most gifted players on the team and has been used to cover slot receivers and as a rush end, as well as the strong-side linebacker. He's on the verge of becoming a very special player.

Huff and Wilkins should provide adequate depth. Beck has been productive on special teams and when he's seen game action but the new coaching staff opted to keep him behind Brooking instead of moving him into the starting lineup and playing Brooking at weak-side linebacker, which would be Brooking's preference.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB DeAngelo Hall, SS Lawyer Milloy, FS Chris Crocker, RCB Chris Houston. Backups -- LCB Allen Rossum, LCB David Irons, SS Omare Lowe, SS Daren Stone, FS Jimmy Williams, RCB Lewis Sanders.

Sanders could open the season as the starter opposite Hall if Houston struggles in training camp but Houston will be the starter at some point. Williams, who was moved from cornerback, is projected to unseat Crocker at free safety, however, Crocker has shown no willingness to surrender his spot. This could emerge as THE position battle during training camp. This secondary has tremendous potential but without much of a pass rush, it could he highly vulnerable because of the overall lack of experience. Milloy is still a highly productive player who could be more involved in pass coverage than he was last season, when, in essence, he was a fourth linebacker.

Irons has shown well in the off-season and could be a sleeper. Sanders has started in the NFL before. Depth at safety is a concern, though.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Aaron Elling, P/KO Michael Koenen, PK Billy Cundiff, LS Boone Stutz, PR/KR Allen Rossum, Jerious Norwood, Adam Jennings.

Elling and Cundiff will compete for placekicking duties but it's not beyond the realm of possibility the Falcons could sign another kicker in preseason. Morton Andersen performed well last season and is available if things don't work out. Koenen leveled off somewhat as a punter last season but he has huge potential. Rossum remains one of the more effective punt and kickoff returners in the NFL but if he gets pushed back on the depth chart at cornerback and one or more upstarts shows promise in the return games, Rossum could end up battling for a roster spot.


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