GREENVILLE, S.C. -- One of the most curious battles for playing time continued Tuesday at training camp for the Atlanta Falcons. A team that for years didn't believe in the tight end now finds itself overwhelmed with four good ones.
One of the first things coach Dan Reeves brought to the Falcons when he arrived before the 1997 season was the tight end. The success of four players at that spot has the coach thinking more about two tight end sets and a rotation that may include all four.
O.J. Santiago, who burst into Atlanta's consciousness with two big catches in overtime last year in the NFC Championship game at Minnesota, has been slowed during the preseason by an assortment of injuries. They include bruises suffered when he was thrown from a golf cart while riding between the players' living quarters and the practice field at Furman University.
Santiago's newest ailment is a sore knee. That will leave the playing time to Rod Monroe, Brian Kozlowski and rookie Reggie Kelly in Friday night's exhibition game against Baltimore. Apparently, the more Reeves has a chance to see his reserves, the more he likes the idea of possibly keeping all four.
"They're all playing awfully well right now," Reeves said. "Rod Monroe has come a long, long way, both in the run and the pass. Reggie Kelly is struggling a little right now, but that's because of an injury. When he's healthy, he's really going to be a good tight end.
"Everyone's getting a lot of playing time right now because O.J. is out, and he might be out again this week. This gives us a chance to really evaluate the other guys."
Monroe originally was a seventh-round pick of Dallas in 1998. He was waived by the Cowboys at the end of training camp and signed to Atlanta's practice squad five days later.
Kozlowski is starting his sixth season in the league. He began with the New York Giants and, like so many others currently in the Falcons' organization, signed as a free agent in 1997. He caught a 13-yard touchdown pass in last week's 35-31 win over Detroit.
Kelly is the team's second-round draft pick from Mississippi State. The Falcons picked him with intentions of using him as a blocker in short yardage situations. Like Santiago, his place on the team's final roster is assured.
Another good battle in camp has materialized across the defensive line. This one is between rookie Patrick Kerney, the team's No. 1 pick this year, and Ed Jasper, signed as a free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles.
Kerney had two sacks in the Detroit win, while Jasper dominated the defensive front.
Kerney is the apparent heir to Chuck Smith's spot on defense. Smith, who's entering his ninth season, also is in the final year of a contract. If Kerney continues to improve, as expected, it's likely the team will make Smith a casualty of the salary cap and let Kerney step into the starting lineup in 2000.
The team did the same thing a year earlier with linebacker Keith Brooking, the No. 1 pick in 1998. After one season of grooming, the Falcons waived veteran Cornelius Bennett and promoted Brooking to the starting lineup.
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