Competition breeds improvement. The NFL typically has a great deal of it just based off the nature of the sport itself. A younger, faster or cheaper counterpart eventually replaced even the greatest players.
The Atlanta Falcons finished 7-9 in 2019. That means the Falcons are a team with holes. Much of their roster has its spots filled with capable players. The hard spots are filled. The Falcons are set at quarterback, running back, left tackle, tight end, outside wide receiver, center, right tackle, right guard, defensive end, middle linebacker one of the defensive tackle spots and free safety.
That’s better than some. The intrigue comes in the spots that aren’t settled and the battles behind the entrenched starters for key backup slots.
The first comes at a position of need as the offseason began. The Falcons used a first round pick to shore up the position but questions remain in how it will shake out once the season kicks off.
Cornerback: Isaiah Oliver vs. A.J. Terrell vs. Kendall Sheffield
It is likely all three of these players will see significant playing time early and often this season. They’re all very highly regarded players. Oliver was a second round draft pick in the 2018 draft. Sheffield was selected in the fourth round in 2019.
The best scenario would feature Oliver and Terrell on the outsides with Sheffield manning the nickelback position.
Sheffield earned a 47.5 rating from Pro Football Focus in 2019. He allowed 36 receptions in 51 targets.
Oliver wasn’t much better with a 56.8 rating by PFF. Oliver was thrown at a lot by the Falcons’ opponents. He was targeted 88 times, which tied him for 11th in the league in targets. He allowed 59 catches.
Terrell could be at a disadvantage to both Sheffield and Oliver with a lack of organized team activities to acclimate to the speed of the NFL due to COVID-19. Terrell has plenty of time mentally delve into the playbook but getting on the field and sharpening himself against NFL caliber talent could slow his progression into a starting role.
The Falcons’ schedule dictates any of the cornerbacks stepping on the field needs to be ready to be thrown at and physically challenged. In week one the Falcons draw the Seattle Seahawks and behemoth wideout D.K. Metcalf. Week two doesn’t get easier.
The Dallas Cowboys and Amari Cooper and first round pick Ceedee Lamb await the Falcons in week two.
Prediction: Oliver and Terrell start, but struggles could waiting early on.
Defensive tackle: Tyler Davison vs. Marlon Davidson vs. Deadrin Senat
Tyler Davison resigned this offseason with the Falcons for three years and $12 million with $4.5 million of that contract guaranteed. It’s clear he will have some sort of role in the Falcons’ defensive tackle rotation this season.
Davison started 12 of the 16 games last season. He earned collected 55 tackles and a sack in 2019. PFF rated him with a 67.5 for his play.
As solid as he has been and appears to be poised to be in 2020, the Falcons felt they needed to continue to add to the position group as they went out and selected defensive end Marlon Davidson from Auburn University in the second round of the NFL Draft and immediately signaled that he’d be playing inside at the college level.
Davidson is comparable in size to Davison weighing in at 300 pounds and standing 6’3. Davidson could add more of a pass rushing element to the position and in turn be used alongside Davison and star Grady Jarrett in certain groupings.
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Coming into the draft PFF gave Davidson an 83.8 pass rushing grade.
Senat has been the forgotten man in the rotation and in consideration for the job. Senat was a key contributor in his rookie season.
He started two games and played in 15 games totaling 30 tackles. Last season, Senat was inactive for all except two games last season.
He is comparable to what the Falcons have in Jarrett, as they’re similar in size and number. It’s year-three for the former third round pick for the University of South Florida. If there were a time for him to blossom 2020 could be it.
Prediction: Davison starts the first half of the season with Davidson and Senat playing rotationally before Davidson superior pass rushing ability forces him into the lineup full time by the end of 2020.
Left guard: Matt Hennessy vs. the field
This battle depends on how ready Hennessy is from day one to play meaningful football. Hennessy may be the heir apparent at the center position. That may be two years away. Mack has two more years left on his contract, but the threat of retirement looms over the 34-year-old center.
In turn the third rounder out of Temple may be talented enough that his services could be needed to help shore up a unit that allowed quarterback Matt Ryan to be sacked a career high 48 times last season.
The other options at the position include Jamon Brown and James Carpenter. The Falcons have seen that song and dance for a season now and both Brown and Carpenter proved to be serviceable at best.
Brown earned a PFF rating of 53.2 in the 587 snaps he played in 2019. Carpenter was rated at a dismal 45.3 in 675 snaps.
Prediction: Hennessy wins by default and flourishes by mid season as a solid starter.
Left outside linebacker: Foye Oluokun vs. Mykal Walker vs. Keanu Neal
Oluokun has been a fringe starter since his rookie season in 2018 when he tallied up 91 tackles. With De’Vondre Campbell, who led the Falcons in tackles in 2019, is now in Arizona, the first name that comes up to replace him is the guy who’s been there the longest and has shown flashes of being a starter in the past.
Oluokun will play a lot for the Falcons in 2020, where he plays is the question. The answer doesn’t so much depend on Oluokun’s performance.
If Walker is ready to play as a rookie, the fourth rounder out of Fresno State University certainly could get the chance to show he deserves it.
The wildcard is Neal. After two devastating injuries nobody truly knows what Neal will look like when he returns. He was Pro Bowl safety in 2017. After a torn Achilles, and torn anterior cruciate ligament in back-to-back seasons, Neal will be assumed to have lost a step.
With Demontae Kazee seemingly in position to continue playing the safety spot left by Neal in his injured seasons, the Dan Quinn can be creative in how he gets Neal on the football field.
Prediction: Oluokun starts and produces a big statistical season, while Walker stars on special teams. Neal plays in nickel packages and takes the role left by Oluokun’s move to Campbell’s spot.