Falcons’ first-round pick Jake Matthews (No. 70) stands in line for a drill during the team’s rookie mini-camp this spring. (Atlanta Falcons)
FLOWERY BRANCH — A major part of the Falcons’ master plan to rebound in 2014 depends on receiving major contributions from the rookie class.
Falcons coach Mike Smith welcomed the 29 first-year players Tuesday evening.
They received physicals and met with positions coaches. The group, which includes nine draft picks and 20 undrafted free agents, will take the field with the veterans today for the opening of training camp.
“We’re fast-tracking a lot of these guys,” Smith said. “We’re going to give them an opportunity to compete.”
It’s possible that six of the nine draft picks could earn substantial playing time.
Also, the Falcons dipped in the undrafted pool last season to fill some key positions with linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. There are some opportunities for this year’s undrafted player, too.
Right tackle Jake Matthews, the Falcons’ first-round pick and sixth player taken overall in the draft, is slated to start.
“Jake has been running with the first team since early on in the OTAs, and he’s handled it extremely well,” Smith said. “He’s got the skill-set to be a very successful offensive tackle. We are going to continue to give him as many reps as we possibly can in order to get him ready to go.”
The Falcons’ coaching staff has successfully prepared rookies to start immediately. Since Smith’s first season in 2008, all of the first-round picks have opened the season as starters, which dates to quarterback Matt Ryan and left tackle Sam Baker.
The Falcons hope that defensive end/tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, their second-round pick, can play a pivotal role on the defensive line.
“We really want to have a very deep rotation on the defensive line,” Smith said. “Ra’Shede will be in the rotation. He’ll be a guy that we’ll identify what we feel like he’s strongest at, whether it’s going to be in our base package or one of our sub packages.”
In OTAs and minicamp, Hageman lined up at defensive end in the 3-4 alignment and defensive tackle in the 4-3.
“We will focus in those areas,” Smith said. “I really believe this, more so than ever, you don’t have 11 starters. You don’t have 12 starters when you talk about the nickel (back) and the linebacker.
“The way that the snaps can play out, we are going to have 14 or 15 starters on the defensive side. Ra’Shede is a guy that’s going to get the opportunity to compete.”
The Falcons have a void at free safety after releasing Thomas DeCoud. Veteran Dwight Lowery practiced with the first-team defense over the offseason and will open training camp as the No. 1 free safety.
He will be pushed by rookie Dezmen Southward, the Falcons’ third-round pick.
“Dez is going to get an opportunity to compete for that spot,” Smith said. “Sean Baker showed some things that we were impressed with and so did Kimario (McFadden). I think we’re set at the strong safety position. But there will be a lot of competition there at free safety.”
Running back Devonta Freeman, one of team’s fourth-round picks, will be counted on to fill the void created by Jason Snelling’s retirement.
Linebacker Prince Shembo played outside and inside linebacker in offseason practices. He will continue to train at both.
Shembo has a shot to land one of the inside linebacker positions in the team’s 3-4 alignment.
“It’s important for us to have, when you start talking about putting your 46-man (game-day) roster together, guys that can play inside and outside,” Smith said. “You must have that flexibility.”
Initially, Shembo was drafted as an outside linebacker.
“He made a very smooth transition to the inside,” Smith said. “We’ll start him as an inside linebacker to start camp, but we will continue to cross-train him because he gives us a lot of multiplicity.”
Cornerback Ricardo Allen, one of the Falcons’ two fifth-round picks, is a contender in the crowded nickel-back derby. He’ll have to beat out incumbent Robert McClain and veteran free agents Josh Wilson and Javier Arenas.
“I see that being a competitive battle as well,” Smith said. “Ricardo Allen, the rookie that we drafted out of Purdue, has experience as the nickel.”
Smith considers the nickel position as one of those 14 to 15 starting positions and the nickel alignment as the team’s base defense.
“As we stated many times, our five-defensive-back package, or what some people call sub-defense, plays between 63 to 68 percent of the time,” Smith said. “So, we’ve got to get that solidified.”
Linebackers Marquis Spruill, a fifth-round pick, and Yawin Smallwood, a seventh-rounder, will have to impress on special teams. Defensive end Tyler Starr appears to be a long shot or potential practice-squad player.
“It’s going to be an ultra-competitive atmosphere in terms of playing time on both sides of the ball,” Smith said.