Atlanta Falcons fans, even after a disappointing 2019 season, should be optimistic heading into the 2020 season. The main reason for that optimism is due to the fact that Atlanta’s core — led by quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones — is still in place. In addition to Ryan and Jones, the Falcons have added talent to the mix at the skill positions and the multiple first-round picks they spent on the offensive line (2019) are likely to make a leap in year two. The blueprint for a bounce back season for Atlanta involves the offense emerging as an elite unit like the one that paved a path toward the Super Bowl just a few short years ago

Falcons fans can also gather hope around the fact that Atlanta improved down the stretch last season. After a 3-9 start, the 2019 Falcons finished the year with four consecutive wins. Among the Falcons’ wins during that span was an impressive victory over the eventual NFC champion 49ers. This offseason, Atlanta made several significant moves that included the signing of former All-Pro running back Todd Gurley. During the draft, the Falcons spent the majority of their 2020 draft picks on defense, as they look to improve a unit that finished 23rd in the NFL in points allowed last season. Atlanta’s defense should also improve by simply being healthier (which is almost impossible not to be) than they have over the past two seasons.

Below, we’ll break down the Falcons’ biggest position battles that will continue to unfold during training camp. Atlanta has more than a few key positions that need solidified before the team opens the season against the Seattle Seahawks. 

1. Starting cornerback 

Candidates: A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield 

The Falcons switched some things up in their secondary after finishing 22nd in the NFL in pass defense a season ago. They parted ways with veteran Desmond Trufant while spending their first-round pick on Terrell, a former standout at Clemson. Despite his inexperience, don’t be surprised if Terrell is part of Atlanta’s starting lineup when the Falcons face Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in Week 1. Terrell has made a quick impression on Falcons’ defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who lauded Terrell’s attention to detail earlier this summer. 

“I think A.J.’s attention to detail, his ability to listen and retain information and being able to spit it back out to coaches is what impresses us probably the most already,” Morris said of Terrell, via ESPN’s Vaughn McClure. “We all had tests. We all had different online things. We all had different ventures and different avenues of ways to test a guy, and his attention to detail was excellent.

“I think by us setting his goals and his roles going into the 2020 season of playing hard, of being able to be an outside vertical controller and being able to really lock in on his fundamentals and techniques when he’s coached, I think those things will give him the confidence to be a really good player in this league.”

The other cornerback spot will likely come down to either Oliver or Sheffield. Sheffield, a 2019 fourth-round pick who made 11 starts for the Falcons a year ago, should be considered as the favorite over Oliver, who had a good finish to the 2019 season after some early season struggles. 

2. Starting left guard 

Candidates: James Carpenter, Matt Hennessy, Jamon Brown, Justin McCray, Matt Gono

The team’s starter a season ago, Carpenter is the safe pick to reprise his role as Atlanta’s starting left guard in 2020. Injuries, however, has been a major question mark surrounding Carpenter, who missed 11 games over the past two seasons. The 31-year-old lineman also did not deliver his best season in 2019, which is another reason why he will have to fight to retain his starting job this summer. 

A center by trade, Hennessy, a third-round pick in this year’s draft, will get a chance to start at left guard during his first season in Atlanta. While his athleticism and quick grasp of the Falcons’ offensive scheme will help him, Hennessy’s lack of experience at the NFL level — especially during an offseason where rookies were unable to participate in any team-related activities — certainly creates a hurdle for Hennessy leading up to the Falcons’ first game of the season. 

Brown should be considered the third most likely candidate to win this position battle. While he has proven to be solid in pass protection (he didn’t allow a sack in four starts and in his 10 total appearances last season) and extremely effective in the ground game, Brown did struggle to avoid committing penalties in 2019, something he will have to clean up this summer if he wants to increase his odds at earning a starting job. 

McCray, a former undrafted rookie, has endured a roller coaster career since breaking into the NFL in 2014. After spending his rookie season with the Titans, McCray spent two years in the Arena Football League before resurfacing with the Packers, making 13 starts on Green Bay’s offensive line during his two years with the team. He spent the 2019 season with the Browns, receiving four starts in 15 games. 

Like McCray, Gono is considered a long shot to win this position battle. Gono’s versatility (he is capable of playing both guard and tackle) and work ethic may give him a puncher’s chance to win the job if more than a few things go his way. 

3. No. 3 receiver 

Candidates: Russell Gage, Laquon Treadwell 

While the Falcons have a formidable 1-2 punch at receiver in Jones and Calvin Ridley, the team needs a reliable third receiver to step into the fold. That will likely come down to either Gage or Treadwell. At this point, Gage, based on his experience within the Falcons’ offense, should be considered the favorite to win this position battle. A sixth-round pick in the 2018 draft, Gage caught just six passes as a rookie before earning a much bigger role in the offense last season, catching 49 passes for 446 yards and a touchdown. While he’s not the tallest receiver, the 6-foot, 184-pound Gage’s solid hands and clean route-running has earned him a significant role on the Falcons’ offense entering 2020. 

Treadwell, a former first-round pick, is looking to rejuvenate his career in Atlanta after an underwhelming four years in Minnesota. Consistency was a constant issue for Treadwell in Minnesota, and if he can find a way to fix that issue in Atlanta, Treadwell should find a home in the Falcons’ offense in 2020, even if he isn’t able to beat Gage for the No. 3 spot. 

4. Starting left outside linebacker 

Candidates: Foye Oluokun, Mykal Walker, Keanu Neal 

A spot-starter during his first two seasons, Oluokun should be considered the favorite to replace De’Vondre Campbell, who headed to Arizona this offseason. During his first two seasons, Oluokun tallied 153 tackles while receiving 10 starts. 

If Walker, one of the team’s fourth-round picks in the 2020 draft, is ready to be a starter by the start of the season, Oluokun will likely earn a starting spot elsewhere. Regardless of where he lines up, rest assured that Walker, an extremely versatile player who saw time at both linebacker and at defensive end at Fresno State, will have a significant role on Atlanta’s defense in 2020. 

“With Mykal, obviously the versatility, he’s got the length to play outside at the SAM linebacker,” Quinn said after the draft, via the team’s official website. “And we’ll feature him also at some of the WILL linebacker and play over tight ends and do that based on his length.” 

Neal will be an interesting player to watch during camp. A Pro Bowl safety in 2017, he played in just four games over the past two years after suffering a torn Achilles and a torn anterior cruciate ligament. If Neal can show that he has rebounded from those injuries, things could certainly get interesting as it relates to this position battle. 

5. Starting right defensive tackle

Candidates: Tyeler Davison, Marlon Davidson 

A sixth-year veteran, Davison, did enough during his first season in Atlanta to earn a three-year contract extension during the offseason. And while should be considered the front-runner to keep his starting spot in 2020, rest assured that the Falcons would like to get Davidson — the 47th overall pick in the draft — on the field sooner rather than later. 

While Falcons coach Dan Quinn has stated that he would like to play Davidson at defensive tackle (thus allowing him to compete against opposing guards instead of tackles), don’t be surprised if the Falcons shift him to the outside on early downs. That would allow Davidson to get on the field while also keeping Davison — one of the Falcons’ top run defenders on the defensive line last season — in the starting lineup. That being said, if Davidson has an extremely good summer, it’s going to be hard for Quinn and company to keep him out of the starting lineup. 

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