The Atlanta Falcons are 2-0 in the preseason for the first time in over a decade, but their main concern at this point is not continuing to rack up exhibition wins, rather determing which 53 players will be on their final roster when the regular season starts on September 11.
The team will face off against the Miami Dolphins later this week on Thursday in the pivotal third preseason game that typically features the team’s starters playing the entire first half. The Falcons didn’t quite follow that trend a year ago when they squared off against the Dolphins, thanks to the amount of ample pressure that quarterback Matt Ryan was facing from a formidable defensive front.
Ryan was yanked midway through the second quarter in favor of T.J. Yates, while wide receiver Julio Jones only played a single snap against Miami. But with a few exceptions, most of the team’s starters played through the first half and a few continued onto the first series of the second half.
What is also interesting is that the vast majority of the players that got those first-half reps last summer wound up making the roster, being just another strong indicator that the third preseason game is a dress rehearsal for the regular season.
According to my notes from last summer, of the 17 offensive players that earned playing time during the first half, 15 were on the Falcons’ opening-day roster. On the defensive side of the ball, 19 of 21 made the roster, while eight of the 11 players that saw time predominantly on special teams also made the team.
The two offensive players that didn’t stick were Yates and tight end Tony Moeaki, the latter of whom suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster for the first month of the season before being brought back.
Defensively, the pair of outliers were defensive end Cliff Matthews and linebacker Tyler Starr. Starr wound up joining the team’s practice squad.
On special teams, the trio that didn’t make the cut were fullback Collin Mooney, cornerback Travis Howard and wide receiver Carlton Mitchell. Both Mooney and Howard were put on injured reserve thanks to untimely injuries.
So if there’s a lesson to learn from a year ago, 86 percent of the players that earned playing time in the first half of the Falcons’ third preseason game wound up making the squad. And nearly half of those that didn’t make the cut had extenuating circumstances such as injuries prevented them from making the opening-day 53-man roster.
That’s a good sign that if a player sees serious playing time this Thursday in the rematch against the Dolphins, it’s a strong indicator that the coaching staff is optimistic that said player will contribute in 2016.
It’s probably not a coincidence that a combined 38 players saw snaps against the Dolphins last summer on offense and defense according to my notes. That’s generally about the same number that many teams, including the Falcons, deploy on either side of the ball on a typical regular-season Sunday.
Depending on scheme, most teams typically will utilize between 36 and 39 players on offense and defense on any given Sunday. That means that the remaining seven to 10 players that are active on game days tend to only play on special teams, unless there’s an injury that forces them into the lineup.
The last seven remaining spots on a 53-man roster can be used to stash more special teams players or a developmental prospect on offense and defense.
This sort of breakdown is why special teams matters when it comes to finalizing an NFL roster. Nearly a third of the roster is basically only ever going to see the field on special teams unless there are a multitude of injuries.
Falcons to Have 38 Contributors on Game day, With Few Holes Unfilled
Thirty eight is about what I’d estimate for how many Falcons players are likely to see regular, reliable snaps on either offense or defense this season. That should split evenly between each side of the ball, with 19 guys expected to play offense or defense on any given Sunday.
And as the Falcons look to try and figure out which 53 players to keep ahead of the September 3 deadline, most of those 38 spots are pretty locked up as of this point.
Unfortunately there could of course be several injuries over the final two preseason games that disrupt whatever plans the Falcons have moving forward, but it’s easy to see that only a handful of positions on either side of the ball are still being actively contested. Let’s break them down position-by-position, starting with the offense.
At quarterback, the starter and his backup count towards the team’s 19 game-day contributors. Those two spots are pretty much sewn up with Ryan and Matt Schaub set to be the backup. Schaub’s strong play through the first two preseason games has locked up his spot as Ryan’s top backup, with Sean Renfree and Matt Simms attempting to impress the coaches enough to merit them keeping a third quarterback on the roster that will be inactive most Sundays.
Reserve Running Back May Come Down to Special Teams Ability
Running back normally would be a position that features three players that could contribute on game day, but this year that number should dip to two since Tevin Coleman is expected to carve out a larger role in the offense. Coleman is still going to be stuck behind starter Devonta Freeman, but he should be able to steal reps from last year’s third running back Terron Ward.
Ward played 114 snaps on offense last year, but 70 of those came in five games that saw either Freeman or Coleman out of the lineup. Meaning Ward saw an average of 5.5 snaps per game in eight other contests in which he appeared. Coleman should easily be able to add that amount to his own workload, which should leave whomever the Falcons pick to be the third-string tailback this year as primarily a special-teams contributor.
Of course whoever fills that spot will also be in a position to fill in on offense should either Coleman or Freeman be sidelined or need a breather, but it makes sense for the Falcons to try and strike a balance between offensive upside and special-teams value once you consider that Ward averaged about 8.3 snaps per game in the latter phase a year ago.
Ward’s ankle injury has hurt his chances of retaining his spot, with Brandon Wilds and Cyrus Gray biting at his heels. Gus Johnson is probably a long shot but still has a puncher’s chance in the final two exhibition games to steal a spot.
Fullback Patrick DiMarco stands alone at his respective position. His biggest concern is going to be whether or not the Falcons dial back his offensive workload. Last season, DiMarco played in nearly a third of offensive snaps. But through two preseason games, he’s played in a little more than one fifth of the team’s offensive snaps.
Now that could be attributed to the Pro Bowler not needing a ton of reps to get prepared for the season as well as the Falcons trying not to tip their hand about their tendencies before it’s September. But it’s at least something to keep an eye on once the games start to matter in a few more weeks.
Backups Battling in Atlanta at Wide Receiver and Offensive Line
Four wide receivers will be part of the Falcons’ game-day lineup and those positions are pretty much settled. Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu will be the team’s main two starters with Justin Hardy being mixed in regularly as the third option. One of the bigger takeaways from the preseason so far has been that the Falcons have extensively utilized Sanu in the slot while Hardy has been relegated to an outside receiver through two preseason games. This was a concern entering the summer over whether either player would be marginalized as an outside receiver. It remains to be seen if Hardy can thrive in that role.
The fourth receiver will be Aldrick Robinson, whose game-breaking vertical ability could be a significant addition to a Falcons offense that is desperately looking for more explosive plays.
The Falcons are still trying to figure out the back-end of their wide receiver depth with players like Devin Fuller and J.D. McKissic competing over return duties and Nick Williams and Eric Weems being steady role players that hope their special-teams prowess give them opportunities on upcoming Sundays. But none of those guys figure to be significant contributors on game day unless there is an injury to one of the top four.
Up front the Falcons are also pretty settled along the offensive line, where seven players are typically active on Sundays. Most of the starting lineup seems set with Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder at tackle and Alex Mack at center. There is still some competition brewing between guards Andy Levitre, Chris Chester, Wes Schweitzer and Mike Person.
One can never be 100 percent sure what the Falcons are doing along their offensive line, but it does appear at least through two preseason games that any competition between the veterans Levitre and Chester and their backups is nominal at best. Schweitzer has looked promising considering his rookie status but is not quite on the same level as Chester, with whom he has alternated series during the first two exhibition games.
If Schweitzer is in a legitimate competition for any spot, it’s for one of the two reserve spots on Sunday. Whoever becomes the team’s top reserve on the interior will be expected to join Tom Compton, who has created a significant amount of separation between himself and Bryce Harris for the right to be the Falcons’ swing tackle this season. Person seemed like a nature bet to man the swing spot inside given his experience at both guard and center, but Schweitzer has played well enough this summer to be given very strong consideration there.
Regardless of who is the top reserve along the interior of the offensive line, both Schweitzer and Person are safe bets to make the final roster, leaving much of the position battles on offense already settled well ahead of final cuts. That is not quite the case at the tight end position.
Tight End Most Contested Spot on Falcons Offense
Jacob Tamme is the unquestioned starter, but who are the two backups that are expected to contribute on game days is to be determined. Rookie third-round pick Austin Hooper is a fairly safe bet to fill one of those spots, but the other one is up for grabs. Levine Toilolo’s hand injury kept him out of the preseason-opening win against the Washington Redskins and might have caused him to lose ground to D.J. Tialavea. Undrafted rookie Josh Perkins cannot be counted out of the mix given his potential as a pass-catcher, although his blocking needs quite a bit of work.
The battle for who will contribute on game days besides Tamme and Hooper at tight end is likely to be a competition that goes down to the final preseason game. Tialavea seems to have the edge right now based off his play in the first two preseason games, but both Toilolo and Perkins should have ample opportunities to leapfrog him before things are finalized.
Even though Tamme and Hooper aren’t in danger of losing roster spots, they too are still competing for exactly what their roles will be in 2016. The Falcons won’t deploy very many sets that feature all three tight ends on the field at once, yet the team may opt to mix and match their frequently used two-tight end sets to feature better pass-catching, blocking or balanced combinations. Depending on how all play the remainder of the summer could determine how they each are used come the regular season.
Switching over to the defense, there are not many more positions up for grabs than there are on offense. But unlike the offense, a few of the starting positions still remain unsettled through two preseason games.
Falcons’ Defensive Line Rotation is Pretty Much Set
None of those unsettled starting spots are situated along the defensive line. The Falcons regularly utilized eight linemen last season on game days, with four players working primarily in the base defense on run downs and four regularly used in their nickel sub-package on passing downs.
So far that breakdown expects to feature Brooks Reed, Tyson Jackson, Grady Jarrett and Ra’Shede Hageman in the base defense this season with Adrian Clayborn, Jonathan Babineaux, Derrick Shelby and Dwight Freeney headlining the nickel defense.
That eight-man group doesn’t include Vic Beasley but only because he plays a hybrid role since he plays defensive end in the nickel and strong-side linebacker in the base defense. That was a similar hybrid role that O’Brien Schofield played last year, after starting the season as a regular at defensive end before making the switch and seeing far more reps at linebacker in the latter half of the season.
Other players like defensive tackles Courtney Upshaw and Joey Mbu as well as defensive ends Malliciah Goodman and Nordly Capi are probably the front-runners in the competition to fill out the back end of the defensive line unit for what might be one or two more roster spots. However it remains to be seen that even if should they make the team, whether any of them will be considered regular parts of the rotation. Goodman filled that spot last year and was inactive for 12 of 16 games.
Falcons Competition at Linebacker Still Wide Open
The competition at linebacker is a lot more undetermined with the Falcons likely to use four linebackers on a regular basis as they did last season with Justin Durant, Nate Stupar, Paul Worrilow and Reed. Durant and Stupar are gone and Reed is playing defensive end, leaving three clear-cut vacancies. Worrilow also isn’t guaranteed to hold onto his spot as one of the team’s top four linebackers while competing with veterans Sean Weatherspoon and Philip Wheeler along with rookies Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell.
Jones is probably the only one of those that could be considered a lock to be featured among the top four during the regular season. Campbell is another strong bet to fill one of those spots as the team is looking to upgrade their athleticism in the middle of the defense.
Based off his play through the first two preseason games coupled with the body of work he’s put forth over his career, Weatherspoon should also be poised to earn one of the four spots too. The real question between the three of them is what exactly their roles will be.
Jones and Weatherspoon have alternated series at middle linebacker and Campbell has gotten plenty of starting reps on the weak side. Ideally the Falcons could try to get both Jones and Weatherspoon on the field at the same time at middle and weak-side linebacker, respectively, and sub Campbell in on select downs to take advantage of his coverage ability.
Yet nothing is finalized at the position and this week’s dress-rehearsal game could determine a lot with how the position shakes out in the end. The Falcons could easily decide to bite the bullet and go with the pair of rookies in the starting lineup to maximize the amount of speed and athleticism on the field and instead mix Weatherspoon in as a veratile, part-time player much like they often did with Stupar a year ago.
That would then mean that Worrilow and Wheeler are competing for the fourth and final linebacker spot that could receiver significant work on game days. Wheeler has been getting reps at strong-side linebacker behind Beasley, making him an obvious analog for Reed’s role last year at the same position. But if the team feels comfortable that Beasley can handle the increased workload, then Wheeler could be considered extraneous and relegated to mostly special-teams duties instead. That would leave the door open for the two-time team captain in Worrilow to continue to get work on defense rather than being relegated solely to special teams work.
Falcons Nickel Cornerback Faces Big Test Against Dolphins
A lot like linebacker, there are lingering questions with how the cornerback position will shake out. The starters are secure in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, but who will be the team’s nickel cornerback, effectively a third starter, at the outset of the regular season is not yet known.
Undrafted rookie Brian Poole has received all of the first-team reps at slot cornerback through the first two preseason games, thus is the front-runner. But Akeem King is also in the mix and will have to showcase enough coverage ability that the Falcons instead opt to slide Alford inside into the slot on passing downs.
Another unanswered question is whether or not Jalen Collins has shown enough that he’ll be able to take back the third cornerback role from either Poole or King once his four-game suspension is up.
But this week could be a big one for Poole, who might find himself face-to-face with the Dolphins’ top wideout in Jarvis Landry on Thursday night. Poole hasn’t been tested much thus far in the preseason but should have his hands full against Landry, who is one of the league’s premier slot receivers.
If Poole can pass that test, it will likely mean that the Falcons will trust that he can handle nickel duties entering the season. If not, then the Falcons could turn their attention to the waiver wire in the coming weeks to satisfy their depth need at cornerback.
Safety is another position that features three players that should see regular action during the season, but doesn’t seem likely to feature much competition for which trio fills those spots. Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal are entrenched as the team’s two starters at free and strong safety, respectively.
The third spot is likely to be filled by Robenson Therezie, as he often did a year ago. He could be pushed by Kemal Ishmael, but with the latter sporting a shoulder injury, it’s unlikely that will be the case by summer’s end. Ishmael is capable of the occasional spot duty in the dime sub-package as he was utilized at times last year, but given his limitations in coverage, his best role might be as an injury replacement for Neal rather than seeing significant reps on the passing downs that dime package usually encounters.
Thus when looking at players that will be regular contributors on either offense or defense on game day, there appears to be only about a half dozen spots that remain unsettled. And with several of them, there is clearly a front-runner or two that just needs to maintain the status quo for the remainder of the summer to win the gig.
Special Teams Will Matter When Falcons Roster Finalized
But even though the team’s main 38 spots are mostly fulfilled. that doesn’t mean that the remaining 12 spots (minus the three specialists) that will fill out the 53-man roster aren’t in heavy contention. Most of those spots will be ones where special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong has a considerable amount of influence over which players stay and go.
A good portion of that final dozen could probably be guessed at today, but they won’t be finalized until the final whistle is blown in the Falcons’ preseason finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But the bulk of the team’s game-day contributors should be on display this week against the Dolphins. How players perform, particularly at linebacker and cornerback, in this “dress rehearsal” game could go a long way to not only instilling confidence in the coaching staff.
By my estimate, there are seven game-day contributor spots that are still undetermined with another dozen players that will make the 53-man roster and play predominantly on special teams or otherwise be inactive on game day. Even if you include the 10 spots on the practice squad, that means that there are roughly 56 players that are competing for no more than 29 spots.
That puts a significant amount of pressure and will eventually leave roughly half of those players out in the cold come September 4. But even should they not get the chance to stick in Atlanta, many of those players will hope to impress enough over these next two weeks that one of the other 31 NFL teams will give them an opportunity. But even still, only a handful will have that chance to catch on with other teams.
The sad reality is that this is the time of year where the dream of playing professional football for several hundred prospective players will die. But even against that dark backdrop, it does make those that do wind up living out their childhood shine a little brighter.