Most fans attend practices and watch preseason games to see the first units and the top draft picks. But the real stories of camp are deeper down the roster. There are 80 players in every training camp vying for only 53 roster spots.
For the last three seasons, I've presented a top ten list of key players involved in these competitions. Some are established players in jeopardy of losing their jobs if they don't come through. Others are prospects on the rise or lesser known players that have an opportunity to step up and make more significant contributions.
This morning's special teams practice session marked the official end of training camp for the Falcons. Here's an update on how this year's list of players to watch has fared:
1. Trey Lewis
Reason he made the list: the Falcons have six DTs (not even counting Jamaal Anderson) and probably just four roster spots for the big men to fill. Of the three fringe players competing for the last spot, Lewis is the top story.
End of camp update: he's looking much better than he did in 2009, with Smitty noting that his play was one of the few bright spots in Thursday's otherwise dismal showing against the Patriots.
He's still in jeopardy, but his current level of play, versatility (can play either DT spot - acted as a sub at UT for Rod Coleman in 2007) and size (listed as our largest defensive player at 316 pounds) will make it tough for Smitty to send the Turk his way.
2. Steven Hauschka
Reason he made the list: of the three kickers (including Michael Koenen) Atlanta had in camp, Hauschka was the primary unknown factor. The team already knows what Matt Bryant and Koenen can/can't do, making Hauschka the wild card in the contest and the most important one to watch.
End of camp update: the media reports say that Matt Bryant won the kicking battle. A more accurate description would be that Hauschka lost it. He was the younger candidate with the theoretically stronger leg. But his longer field goal attempt against the Chiefs came up short, and his kickoffs lacked depth and weren't particularly strong for hang time.
Never mind that he couldn't outdo the struggling Bryant on field goals. When it became clear he wasn't going to beat out Koenen for kickoffs, that sealed his fate. The Falcons would still make a move to bring in another kicker if Bryant gets the yips like Jason Elam last year. But at least for now, Hauschka isn't it.
3. Kerry Meier
Reason he made the list: the top three WRs were essentially set in stone (Roddy White and Michael Jenkins as the starters, with Harry Douglas in the slot as the #3) even before camp, but the Falcons need to improve their depth at the position. The fifth rounder from Kansas was the top candidate for the fourth WR spot.
End of camp update: he had an outstanding camp, but he hurt his knee on a special teams play late in the Patriots game. Like Douglas last year, he's out for the season.
4. Lawrence Sidbury
Reason he made the list: the Falcons didn't draft a DE or sign one in free agency. They're putting all their chips on Kroy Biermann as a second threat along with John Abraham and Sidbury to step up as a third potent pass rushing end.
End of camp update: so far, so good. What El Sid needs most is experience, as he only played a bit over 100 total snaps last season. He'll have far more snaps than that in preseason (he's on the field more than any other d-lineman), and so far he's doing pretty well.
5. Keith Zinger
Reason he made the list: he was the team's most improved offensive player in camp last summer, and if he stepped up again this year, he'd nail down a backup spot (forcing the prospects to start on the practice squad) and potentially even challenge for the #2 spot.
End of camp update: so far, he has been nearly invisible. He's watching Michael Palmer stand out this year exactly the way Zinger stood out last season, when he moved from #5 on the depth chart to win the #3 spot - beating out one of Dimitroff's top free agent signings (Ben Hartsock, signed to replace Alge Crumpler) in the process.
The battle isn't over yet, but Zinger has opened the door for Palmer to take the third TE job.
6. William Moore
Reason he made the list: it's the second season for the second rounder, and the public had yet to see him in action in camp or preseason. He even missed minicamp after overworking his shoulder in the weight room.
End of camp update: I expressed doubts earlier about all the media speculation that he'd challenge Erik Coleman for the starting job. His 2009 season was a lost cause, and he just didn't have the reps to trust him on the last line of defense.
And he still doesn't - we've finally been able to watch him in a few practices, but he missed minicamp (overworked his shoulder in the weight room) and has missed time during camp plus both preseason games so far this year. He still hasn't faced NFL competition - in real games, exhibition games or even combined practices.
The coming exhibition against the Dolphins will be his first time on the field for the Falcons. He's still a talented prospect, but he's still a long way from being ready for action in the secondary when it counts.
7. Quinn Ojinnaka
Reason he made the list: the Falcons have a whole lot of talented linemen competing for what appears to be one opening on the roster. Ojinnaka is the most intriguing story among them.
End of camp update: he's getting time at multiple positions along the line, including left tackle. The Falcons are definitely testing out his versatility. The Mighty Quinn is very much in the hunt for that ninth backup line spot.
8. Dimitri Nance
Reason he made the list: all three candidates for the #5 RB/FB spot are interesting "stories", but Nance is the most intriguing as a potential Jason Snelling type hybrid RB/FB.
End of camp update: not bad so far. He has shown good ability in the power running game plus receiving ability out of the backfield. If he can demonstrate some blocking skills, he's likely to be the guy. One catch: due to the Michael Jenkins injury and situations at other positions, the team may start out the season with just four runners. Even if he wins the job, he could be starting the season on the practice squad.
9. Eric Weems
Reason he made the list: drafting Meier and Dominique Franks put Weems in jeopardy of losing both of his roles on the team. He entered camp knowing he didn't have a secure roster spot and would have to step up to win a place on the team.
End of camp update: the injury to Meier means that unless the team brings in new blood, Weems and Brian Finneran simply have to hold off Troy Bergeron, Andy Strickland, and the three undrafted rookies to win the #4 and #5 spots. He's also the top KR/PR from camp. His chances of holding his spot are much better now than they were a month ago.
10. Brian Williams
Reason he made the list: if he can make a successful return from injury, he spices up the competition for the DB positions considerably.
End of camp update: he hasn't appeared in preseason yet, but we did get to see him practice, with his first full participation coming in the joint sessions with New England on the final open day of camp. He's slated to appear in these next two exhibitions. I'm still particularly interested to see whether the coaching staff gives him playing time at safety.
Key question: whether he'll be healthy enough after the Jaguars exhibition to keep on the roster. The team had similar hopes for Von Hutchins last season, but Hutchins ended up being an injury settlement case when he wasn't ready to go at the end of preseason. Williams is only now getting his first full contact this week.