Falcons Roster Talk: Defensive Back Seven and Special Teams

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsCB Akeem King snaps a late interception off a deflection vs. the Steelers.

Let’s finish off this three-part series of breaking down how the competitions are going on Atlanta Falcons roster at linebacker, defensive back and on special teams.

In the first part, I broke down the offensive skill positions of quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end. In the second, it was the offensive and defensive lines.

Last week I broke down every single Falcon player that appeared against the Miami Dolphins. Instead of doing that again for their preseason matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend, I’ve decided to tailor this analysis to looking at how it affects players’ bids for the 53-man roster and/or practice squad.

With two preseason games under their belt and two more to play, there is still time for some “bubble” players to make themselves known or to solidify their grips on a roster spot. For others, they really need to take big surges forward this weekend against the Arizona Cardinals or next Thursday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Linebackers

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De’Vondre Campbell

Vic Beasley continued to get work with the starters at strong-side linebacker, suggesting that there still remains a possibility that he gets some regular-season work there. However it’s clear that the Falcons foresee De’Vondre Campbell getting the bulk of the snaps at that position this fall.

It’s likely Beasley will play there based upon certain matchups this season. Against opponents where the Falcons will utilize a healthy amount of their base defense, it’s likely that Beasley will garner some reps at linebacker in addition to his primary role as a defensive end in their nickel sub-package just to make sure the team’s standout pass-rusher gets maximum opportunities to make plays.

Campbell continues to show progress as a strong-side linebacker. The same can be said of rookie weak-side linebacker Duke Riley. While not a perfect performance, Riley continued to look active and aggressive against the run versus the Steelers. He’s still working behind LaRoy Reynolds as the team’s starting weak-side linebacker, but it seems only a matter of time before Riley is working with the starters. It only remains to be seen if that’ll come before the preseason is over or if we’ll have to wait until the regular season.

Reynolds is safely nestled into his role as a dual option at weakside and middle linebacker, serving as Deion Jones’ backup at the latter position. He seems clearly ahead of Kemal Ishmael, who is still learning the ropes of playing linebacker full-time. Ishmael looked slightly better against the Steelers than he did against the Dolphins a week before, diagnosing and reacting a bit more quickly this past week.

Those five players form the team’s core group at the position and are all safe in terms of their roster status. The question surrounding them is more about each players’ exact roles, which will be determined in the coming weeks.

Another question at this spot is whether or not the Falcons will keep a sixth “true” linebacker, assuming Beasley is being counted as a defensive lineman. The potential of Beasley to pull double duty does in fact hurt the chances of another linebacker making the team. But if certain players are able to step up and perform in the coming action against Arizona and Jacksonville, the Falcons will happily take on an extra player.

Jack Lynn, Jermaine Grace and Josh Keyes are the ones competiting for those honors. Lynn is working behind Campbell at strong-side linebacker and made a nice play to pressure Josh Dobbs on what eventually became an interception.

Grace sat out the Steelers game with an injury, but is still neck and neck with the others thanks to his speed, range and potential on special teams.

Keyes is the most experienced of the group and has been playing middle linebacker to add to his versatility of also logging reps at weak-side linebacker in his past. He’s also showcased solid capability on special teams as well.

That third phase of the game could have a major impact on which of these three might make the team. Right now, it’s too close to call but somebody should have an opportunity to create some separation this weekend against Arizona. But all three players are likely to see extensive reps in the preseason finale against Jacksonville and that should be their main opportunity to make a final push for a roster spot.

Even should they not find themselves on the team’s 53-man roster, one or more are very likely to land spots on the practice squad.

Cornerbacks

The impending suspension of Jalen Collins has thrown a significant wrench into this position group. It puts a bit more pressure on those players competing for the fourth cornerback spot to show a bit more steadiness, which hasn’t been clearly seen yet this summer.

Collins rebounded somewhat from a lackluster performance against the Dolphins with a steady performance against the Steelers. He didn’t earn a ton of playing time, but took reps as a slot corner with the third and fourth-string corners in the second half.

Collins’ return to the doghouse has opened doors for C.J. Goodwin and Deji Olatoye at the fourth cornerback spot. Goodwin is safe to make the team as his prowess as a gunner on special teams solidifies his grip on a roster spot. But the team needs to see more progress in coverage from him. While he didn’t give up a touchdown like he did against Miami, he remains a work in progress in coverage. He’ll have two more opportunities to impress.

Olatoye holds firmer footing now that Collins is suspended. He’ll likely make the team as well, although like Goodwin, he needs to continue to impress in coverage on defense over the next two exhibition games to solidify his grip.

Ahead of them, Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Brian Poole are secure in their roster positions and likely combine to represent a five-man group that will likely wind up on the roster when the regular season starts.

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Blidi Wreh-Wilson

But there are others making their own pushes to be a part of the team come September. Chief among them are Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jarnor Jones. Both have shown their versatility in recent weeks by playing inside in the slot as well as performing as outside cornerbacks. Wreh-Wilson looks sharp on special teams, a trait that could potentially elevate him past Olatoye, who has seen limited reps there since joining the Falcons midway through 2016.

Jones gave up a touchdown late to the Steelers thanks to a missed tackle. That didn’t help his cause, but he’ll still have two more chances this preseason to rebound. He’s a strong candidate to make the practice squad regardless.

Former 2015 seventh-round pick Akeem King saw his first action of the preseason versus Pittsburgh and earned an interception on a deflected pass at the end of the game. That certainly helped his cause, but he needs to play a bit of catch up in regards to the others and needs another solid performance this weekend to try and even up the score.

Like several others across the Falcons roster, cornerback is a fairly fierce competition that will likely come down to the fourth preseason game against Jacksonville before we can determine any outcomes. Right now, it’s difficult to draw too many strong conclusions before at least one more game is played to see if others create any sort of separation.

The only player that can probably be counted out of the mix is undrafted rookie Jordan Moore. It would seem improbable at this point to see him leapfrog the others but even he still has an opportunity if he can make a play or two this weekend that can get him back in the running for a practice-squad spot.

Safeties

The Falcons are set at the starting spots with Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal entrenched at free and strong safety, respectively. Neal looked solid as usual in his limited action with the starters against Pittsburgh, after missing the game against Miami. Behind them the Falcons are also fairly set as far as their depth is concern.

Damontae Kazee will serve as Allen’s primary backup at free safety. He continued to look active and aggressive in run support against the Steelers, making a number of open-field tackles. The only knock on Kazee is that his performance on special teams was underwhelming after working with the punt team. He was one of the culprits that had poor blocks on a punt that was nearly blocked. It led to him getting injured and he won’t be playing this weekend versus Arizona as a result. With his smaller stature, Kazee’s ability to perform on special teams could be called into question. It won’t affect his ability to make the 53-man roster, but could potentially affect whether or not he’s regularly among the 46 players active on Sunday. It’s something to monitor over the next two games as others will get opportunities to impress on special teams in his stead.

The other reserve is Sharrod Neasman, who has settled in nicely behind Neal at strong safety. Unlike Kazee, Neasman has little to know concerns about his status on special teams, which make it likely that he won’t have any issues being active on Sundays this fall. Should Kazee find himself inactive, it’s likely that a combination of Neasman and Poole will serve as emergency backups at free safety should Allen suffer an untimely in-game injury. That was essentially the model the Falcons employed down the stretch last year into the playoffs and it could continue into 2017.

Were the injury to Kazee linger into the regular season, it could open the door to the Falcons keeping a fifth safety on the active roster as an insurance policy. That should invigorate the competition between the likes of undrafted rookies Quincy Mauger, Deron Washington and Marcelis Branch.

Against the Dolphins, it was Branch that pulled double duty at both free and strong safety. However against the Steelers, it was Mauger’s turn. That certainly suggests that the latter might be slightly ahead of the others.

Like Kazee, Branch also struggled to hold his blocks on the punt team. Mauger was the one that replaced Kazee on the unit after his injury and has seemingly performed well on special teams in both games. Not to mention his interception also was another feather in his hat.

Washington is likely behind that duo, but if he can make some plays before the preseason is up, can potentially close the gap. All three players remain longshots to make the 53-man roster even given Kazee’s injury, but one or more could be strong, viable candidates for the practice squad.

Should Kazee’s injury linger, it’s also possible that the Falcons scour the waiver wire a week from now for a veteran safety, much as they did last season when they picked up Dashon Goldson right before the season began.

Special Teams

The core specialists are settled with kicker Matt Bryant, punter Matt Bosher and long snapper Josh Harris. Thus the brunt of the competition here is on the coverage units and return group.

However, reserve kicker Mike Meyer remains in the mix for a practice squad spot with the Falcons if he continues to kick well. Bryant is in the final year of his contract and at age 42, there is a strong likelihood that this is his last with the Falcons. Stashing a player like Meyer for a year is a smart plan for the Falcons. This is something they did back in 2000, keeping Jake Arians on the practice squad for a year as an heir apparent to Morten Andersen. Unfortunately Arians (by the way the son of Cardinals head coach, Bruce) lost the competition the ensuing summer to Jay Feely.

Obviously should the situation arise, Meyer hopes to avoid such a fate. But should he continue to get opportunities as a field-goal kicker in the next two games and perform well, he may not have to wait that long. With several other teams having question marks at their kicker position this summer, it’s possible that Meyer will get scooped up by another team in Matt Prater-esque fashion.

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Andre Roberts

In the return game, Andre Roberts seemingly has taken the lead there. The Falcons may continue to rotate their other options there in the coming weeks after Nick Williams got the bulk of the reps against the Steelers. It’ll be noteworthy if Marvin Hall, Reggie Davis or Josh Magee get more work as returners this weekend or next week in their bids to make the team. But it remains Roberts’ job to lose.

The teams lead coverage units are fairly established with many of the holdovers from 2016 likely to return to their same roles. However many of them did not see action against the Steelers, particularly the team’s main punt unit given Bosher’s first punt didn’t come into well into the second quarter with the second unit getting the “start” instead.

These depth of the coverage units will continue to be worked and re-worked over the next two weeks given the large number of players that need to be evaluated. That same issue makes it’s difficult to assess everyone that needs to perform in special teams coverage to make the roster. But essentially if a player is not entrenched as a starter or key reserve, he’ll likely need to perform on special teams to be an active part of the roster this fall. In cases of players like Tyler Renew or J.T. Jones, their bids for roster spots are limited if they don’t see action on special teams. Instead, they may only be destined for practice-squad spots at best.

Special teams matter specifically for position groups like wide receiver, linebacker and cornerback, where the competition towards the back end of the roster is particularly fierce. Players in those groups should have ample opportunity in the next two preseason games to make their respective bids for the roster and/or practice squad.

Roster Projection

Here’s my attempt to assess where players’ bid for roster or practice-squad roles lie two games into the preseason. An asterisk (*) indicates a player that is eligible for the practice squad. A pound sign (#) indicates a player that is suspended and thus won’t count towards the 53-man roster.

Locks
These players are very safe as the only thing really standing in their way of being part of the team’s 53-man roster is a serious injury.

Linebackers: Deion Jones*, De’Vondre Campbell*, Duke Riley*, LaRoy Reynolds, Kemal Ishmael
Cornerbacks: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Brian Poole*, C.J. Goodwin*
Safeties: Ricardo Allen*, Keanu Neal*, Damontae Kazee*, Sharrod Neasman*

Safe, But Not Yet Secure
These are all players that are pretty safe bets to wind up on the 53-man roster, but need to make sure they solidify their holds as the preseason comes to a close.

Cornerback: Deji Olatoye

On the Bubble
Players that are on the cusp of making the roster and these final two matchups will be huge in determining whether they stick or not.

Linebackers: Jermaine Grace*, Josh Keyes*
Cornerback: Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Jalen Collins#

Outside Looking In
These are players that are fighting an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster, but may or may not have quite as big an ordeal to land on the practice squad, if eligible.

Linebacker: Jack Lynn*
Cornerbacks: Jarnor Jones*, Akeem King*, Jordan Moore*
Safeties: Quincy Mauger*, Marcelis Branch*, Deron Washington*

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Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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