Atlanta Falcons rookies break a huddle during rookie camp earlier this month. The entire team will take the field today as Atlanta starts OTAs in Flowery Branch, where the Falcons will conduct 7-on-7, 9-on-9 and full-team drills in their first action since January’s NFC Championship loss.
ATLANTA — Falcons coach Mike Smith will ceremonially turn the page on one of the more successful seasons in franchise history when the team starts OTAs today.
For Smith, the team starts to move on from last season’s crushing NFC Championship game defeat with the 10 practices over the next three weeks. Live contact is prohibited during OTAs, but the Falcons can conduct 7-on-7, 9-on-9 and team (11-on-11) drills.
The Falcons are one of five NFL teams that waited to this week to start OTAs. Minnesota, Buffalo and San Diego will start Wednesday and Tennessee on Thursday.
The offseason program will culminate with the Falcons’ mandatory minicamp June 18-20. The OTAs are closed to the public, but the minicamp will be open.
Smith said defensive end Stansly Maponga (left foot), quarterback Sean Renfree (shoulder) and linebackers Stephen Nicholas (sports hernia) and Sean Weatherspoon (knee) will be limited because of injury.
Nicholas and Weatherspoon, whose surgeries were considered minor by the team, are expected back by the end of the OTA practices.
Maponga, who had surgery in March to repair the metatarsal bone, isn’t expected back until training camp.
There is no known timetable on Renfree’s return.
We look at five questions facing the Falcons as they are set to open OTAs:
Can the Falcons get rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford ready to contribute immediately? The Falcons drafted Trufant and Alford in the first and second round and plan to get them ready to play immediately in the base and nickel packages.
“That’s an area of need, and the point in the draft was to add some talent to roster,” Smith said.
Secondary coaches Tim Lewis and Joe Danna will be charged with getting the rookies ready to play.
“Both Desmond and Robert are guys that have all of the physical tools,” Smith said. “We are all anticipating that they are going to come in here and have a leg up on the competition because of their athleticism.”
Can Phillipkeith Manley win the starting spot at right guard? The Falcons are high on Manley, who signed as an undrafted rookie last season.
He’s listed at 6-foot-5 and 309 pounds, but is believed to be much bigger. He’s a mauler and may be an athletic upgrade.
Manley spent part of last season on the practice squad before making the active roster Nov. 6. He didn’t see any action in games and finished the season listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind Peter Konz at right guard.
With Konz set to slide to center and battle Joe Hawley for the starting spot, Manley must beat out Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson.
Reynolds opened the past two seasons as the starting right guard, but was not able to hold the position.
“We feel good about some of the young guys from last year that really didn’t get an opportunity to play that are going to get an opportunity to compete,” Smith said. “P.K. Manley is a guy. I like Harland Gunn and Jacques McClendon, too.”
Is it Mike Johnson’s time to shine? When the Falcons drafted Johnson in the third round in 2010, most figured that it was just a matter of time before the former Alabama star cracked the starting lineup.
Over three seasons, he’s been injured and beaten out twice by Reynolds and has made one start.
With openings at right guard and right tackle, Johnson will get another shot to start.
Also, there are some longshot candidates in the group of undrafted rookie free agents, such as Alec Savoie (6-6, 310), Ryan Schraeder (6-7, 300), Terren Jones (6-7, 341) and Theo Goins (6-4, 317).
“We added some big offensive linemen,” Smith said. “Although they weren’t drafted, they are going to get an opportunity to compete.”
Who’s going to rush the passer opposite Osi Umenyiora? The Falcons are counting on free-agent signee Umenyiora to take John Abraham’s job and lead the pass-rushing charge, but the never-ending quest to find a defensive end to rush opposite the right end continues.
Kroy Biermann finished last season as the starter after the Ray Edwards experiment went haywire. From the group of Cliff Matthews, Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman and Maponga someone has to emerge in the rotation.
“Stansly Maponga is a guy that we’re not going to get an opportunity to see him this session of the offseason,” Smith said. “We anticipate that he’ll be ready to go when we start training camp.”
The Falcons traded up 10 spots in the fifth round to land Maponga.
“He’s a pass-rushing defensive end who could also give us some flexibility,” Smith said. “We want to have as many guys, especially in our third-down package, that can stand up and put their hands on the ground. That’s what we have in Kroy (Biermann) and Stansly Maponga. We’ll see if Stephen Nicholas can do that as well.”
Is fullback Bradie Ewing healthy? The Falcons added running back Steven Jackson in free agency, but he doesn’t have a proven lead blocker.
Ewing was drafted last season in the fifth round to replace Ovie Mughelli. Last season, Mike Cox filled that role, but he was not re-signed. Ewing suffered a gruesome knee injury in the exhibition opener against Baltimore on Aug. 9 and missed the season.
Jason Snelling came on strong late last season and could be in line for more work at fullback.
“He’s made a really good recovery from his ACL surgery,” Smith said. “He will not be limited.”