Every year on the heels of the NFL Draft, we as fans turn our attention to training camp considering the NFL offseason is practically complete at this point.
So it’s time to look ahead and see which of the players the Atlanta Falcons added and kept this offseason will impact the 2017 season’s success (or failure).
Here’s my way-too-early-attempt to try and predict which 53 players will be on the roster to kick off the 2017 season. In last year’s post-draft projection, I managed to be 81 percent accurate (43 out of 53). So hopefully I’ll improve upon that mark this year.
This year I did a bit more research, looking at how the Falcons constructed their 46-man gameday rosters for both seasons under head coach Dan Quinn. Using that as my foundation, I was able to build that up to 53 players. I’ll provide insights on those gameday rosters as we go.
Let’s go position-by-position, starting with the most important to the team:
Starter: Matt Ryan
Backup: Matt Schaub
The only surprise here should be the exorbitant amount of money that Ryan might garner this summer when the Falcons re-do his contract. The Falcons have kept just two quarterbacks on their roster for each of the two seasons, and it’s unlikely to change in year three. Schaub is the heavy favorite to retain those backup duties.
Starters: Devonta Freeman, Soma Vainuku
Backups: Tevin Coleman, Brian Hill, Terron Ward
The Falcons have only used two active running backs (not including the fullback) on gameday in 23 out of 35 games (66 percent) under Quinn. Clearly the Falcons offense can function without having a consistent option as the third running back thanks to the exceptional abilities of both Freeman and Coleman.
So for rookie Brian Hill to be consistently active on gameday, he’s going to have to carve out a role on special teams. Most likely Hill will be primarily tasked with replacing the departed Eric Weems on punt coverage units as the personal protector. Even though, he might wind up being inactive the entire season as the fourth tailback, I expect Ward still sticks just because he brings a bit more to the table as a versatile depth option than other possible offensive skill position players the Falcons might keep.
Veteran Derrick Coleman should be considered the front-runner to win the starting fullback duties, but at this point his competition with Soma Vainuku and Tyler Renew could be considered a virtual toss up. So just to be different, I’ll have Vainuku making it.
Starters: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu
Backups: Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, Andre Roberts
The Falcons have had six active receivers on gameday for 20 of their last 24 games dating back to 2015. But that has been primarily due to the fact that they’ve been forced to carry an extra player to serve as a return specialist (Devin Hester in 2015 and Eric Weems in 2016). With Hill expected to take over Weems’ duties on special teams coverage, he’ll effectively function as the sixth active wide receiver on gameday. That means that one of the other receivers can be expected to fill duties as the return specialist. The most likely candidate is Andre Roberts, who performed the same function for the Detroit Lions a year ago. If not him, then you could expect Gabriel, Hardy or even Tevin Coleman to be in the mix to win the gig.
Devin Fuller will also be in the thick of the competition to return kicks, but there might have to be clear separation between him and Roberts considering there’s little incentive in today’s NFL to carry a player that only returns kicks.
At least in 2014, Hester also served as the Falcons fourth wide receiver on the depth chart and Weems’ alternate function was as the captain of special teams coverage units. It’s very unlikely Fuller will leapfrog any of the veteran wide outs ahead of him on the depth chart in training camp this summer, nor will he be asked to carve out a significant role on coverage units. Thus hurting his chances of sticking, unless he’s clearly the best option for the team to serve as the return specialist.
Starter: Austin Hooper
Backups: Levine Toilolo, Eric Saubert, Josh Perkins
The Falcons carried four tight ends last year, although their offense can function with just two active, something they were forced to do in the early part of 2015 when Tony Moeaki was nursing an injury. Yet three tight ends has been overwhelmingly the norm for their 46-man gameday roster since that has been the number they’ve carried in 30 of the past 31 games under Quinn.
Whoever serves as that third tight end will be a regular on special teams, duties that Hooper held early in 2016 that eventually passed to Perkins once he started to get playing time thanks to the injury to Jacob Tamme. Saubert and Perkins will battle it out for those duties this summer, with the loser of the battle likely being relegated to being inactive for much of the year.
Starters: Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, Wes Schweitzer, Ryan Schraeder
Backups: Ben Garland, Sean Harlow, Daniel Brunskill
In all honesty, I expect the Falcons to scour the waiver wire at the end of August to find a swing tackle instead of going with undrafted rookie Brunskill or anyone else currently on the roster. But for the sake of completion, I won’t cop out with “an offensive tackle to be named later.”
Schweitzer should win Chris Chester’s vacated starting spot at right guard, with Ben Garland once again filling in as a utility reserve. Rookie Sean Harlow is unlikely to crack the lineup as one of the seven offensive linemen that is active on gameday, instead experiencing a “redshirt” season much in the same way that Schweitzer did a year ago.
The Falcons only kept eight blockers on their 53-man roster for 10 of their final 12 games a year ago (including the postseason). I’m expecting that trend is likely to continue into 2017.
Starters: Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Dontari Poe, Adrian Clayborn
Backups: Brooks Reed, Takk McKinley, Jack Crawford, Derrick Shelby, Courtney Upshaw, Ra’Shede Hageman
The Falcons have primarily activated nine players in their defensive line rotation in 25 of 35 games (71 percent) under Quinn. Reed and Upshaw’s experience playing special teams gives them added flexibility to be a consistent part of that five-man reserve group in the rotation over players like Hageman, Shelby or Crawford, who are unlikely to be seen covering kicks and punts this year.
Starters: De’Vondre Campbell, Deion Jones, Duke Riley
Backups: LaRoy Reynolds, Kemal Ishmael, Josh Keyes
The Falcons prefer to keep five linebackers active on game days, representing 27 of 35 games (77 percent) played under Quinn. The three starters plus Reynolds and Ishmael are likely to make up that quintet of players.
The Falcons will likely stash another linebacker as the sixth guy on the 53-man roster. Although he’ll be pushed heavily by a group of eager undrafted rookies, Keyes’ added experience should give him a leg up in the competition.
Starters: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford
Backups: Jalen Collins, C.J. Goodwin, Deji Olatoye
The Falcons routinely have kept only four cornerbacks active on gameday, although that changed down the stretch in 2016 once Trufant was out with injury. This prompted the team to move towards five corners in eight of the last nine games (including the postseason). But with Trufant coming back, the team should revert back to the four corners as it has for 66 percent of games under Quinn.
Yet it’s likely given how much quality depth the team has at the position, they will keep a fifth corner on the 53-man roster just so they don’t lose out on a quality player to continue developing for the future. Olatoye showed enough down the stretch last year to give him the edge in any such battle.
Starters: Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal
Backups: Brian Poole, Sharrod Neasman, Damontae Kazee
The Falcons usually keep four safeties active on gameday but with the shift to five cornerbacks late last season, there was a move to only keep three safeties active. That led to Sharrod Neasman serving as the team’s top reserve at both free and strong safety, which should help him make the roster again in 2017.
That leaves Poole and Kazee in a competition for potentially one reserve spot on gameday, with the winner likely serving as Allen’s top reserve at free safety and also potentially getting some looks as a nickel cornerback depending on certain matchups. Poole has the advantage given his experience, but it may only be a matter of time before Kazee can overtake him.
Starters: Matt Bryant, Matt Bosher, Josh Harris
No surprises here! As noted before, I expect some combo of Tevin Coleman, Gabriel and/or Roberts to return kicks and punts for the Falcons in 2017 based off the above roster projection.
Trying to predict the practice squad is basically throwing darts at the board because it’s so heavily based on which players emerge during training camp and preseason, which is a total crapshoot at this point. But here’s a meager attempt to pick the 10 players that will make up the group. One should note that tight end Alex Gray is automatically part of the practice squad, but won’t be counted towards the 10-man unit.
QB Alek Torgersen
WR Devin Fuller
WR Anthony Dable
OT Andreas Knappe
OC Cornelius Edison
DE Darius English
DT Tani Tupou
LB J.T. Jones
CB Taylor Reynolds
CB Akeem King
There you have it, 53 players projected for the Falcons in 2017. Now only time will tell how accurate this turns out to be.