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Atlanta Falcons

3 key training camp battles to watch for Falcons

Atlanta Falcons defensive end Brooks Reed (50) hits Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) out of the pocket during the first half of an NFL football NFC divisional playoff game, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
AP Photo/John Bazemore

Despite suffering through the most epic collapse in Super Bowl history and then making changes at both coordinator spots, there isn’t a lot that the Atlanta Falcons have to sort out during training camp this year.

As you might expect of a championship-caliber team that lost only a few players to either retirement or free agency, the Falcons will arrive at camp with most of their starting jobs already decided.

Most, not all. At least two starting jobs have yet to be decided. The Falcons still aren’t sure how the depth chart will look at other key spots.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the three position battles that should prove to be the most intriguing during a Falcons training camp aimed at moving past that devastating loss in Super Bowl LI.

Right guard

The Falcons’ offensive line was not only one of the best in the league last year, it was also one of the most durable. The team got 19 games out of each of its five opening day starters.

The unit returns virtually intact, the only hole being at right guard, where Chris Chester retired after he struggled mostly as a pass protector, surrendering 45 pressures in 628 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus.

With Chester gone, 2016 sixth-round draft pick Wes Schweitzer steps up as the favorite to fill the void, but he’ll have to prove he’s a better option than either Ben Garland or 2017 fourth-round draftee Sean Harlow.

Schweitzer is a pure zone-blocking guard who has great mobility and a lot of college experience in the kind of scheme the Falcons run, but his lack of NFL experience could prove to be an issue.

Garland doesn’t have a whole lot of experience either, but with Schweitzer and Harlow still very much in the developmental stages, his days as a backup swing guard could soon come to an end.

Left defensive end

In an effort to fill the one hole they had along their defensive front, the Falcons traded up from 31 to 26 in the first round of the draft this past May to get UCLA defensive end Takkarist McKinley.

Many thought it was a reach and that the 6-foot-2, 250-pound McKinley was over-drafted, but not just because he was coming off surgery to repair a shoulder problem that could force him to get a late start this year.

McKinley has great a takeoff and excellent speed, but he has never shown much of a pass-rush plan beyond beating his opponent off the ball. Some scouts question his ability to anchor against the run.

All of that will be tested during camp, where in addition to having to prove he’s healthy, McKinley will also have to prove he’s better than either Brooks Reed or Adrian Clayborn.

The latter is coming off surgery as well, to repair a torn biceps, so Reed could have the edge over everyone going into camp, where Derrick Shelby may get a look at left end if his Achilles’ tendon holds up.

Fullback

The Falcons are one of the few teams that still incorporates the fullback into its offense. They did a year ago under Kyle Shanahan, at least, when Patrick DiMarco was in on 31 percent of their offensive snaps.

DiMarco was one the few who left Atlanta during free agency, however, signing with the Bills. His departure leaves the Falcons with a hole at what remains a very important position for them.

New coordinator Steve Sarkisian likes fullbacks, too, and appears to favor those who are more adept at catching the ball out of the backfield than leading a blocking effort. He has that in former Seahawk Derrick Coleman, but Coleman hasn’t played in a year. In addition to having to prove he can still play at this level, Coleman will have to prove he’s a better option than undrafted rookie free agent Tyler Renew.

A product of the Citadel who wowed scouts with his pass-catching skills and deceptive speed and burst after the catch, the 5-11, 233-pound Renew could be one of the most intriguing players of all in the Falcons’ camp this year.

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