Falcons Roster Talk: Offensive and Defensive Lines

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsTakk McKinley

As I did in the first part, I’ll continue my breakdown of where the Atlanta Falcons players stand in their bids to make the team’s 53-man roster in this second part dealing with the players along the offensive and defensive lines.

Last week, I did a breakdown over every single player that appeared in the Falcons preseason action against the Miami Dolphins. Instead of doing the same for this most recent game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, I’ve decided to adjust my assessment to deal more directly with the various competitions across the roster.

There is still time for players to make a bit more (or less) noise in their attempts to land on the team’s 53-man roster or practice squad with two preseason games left to play. But especially along the line of scrimmage, the cement is beginning to harden and this weekend’s action against the Arizona Cardinals may represent the best opportunity for some, while others will have to hope for a breakout performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars next Thursday to make their claims.

Let’s get into the trench play.

Offensive Tackles

The signing of Austin Pasztor signaled that the Falcons were not content with their depth at this position. Pasztor still is dealing with a pectoral injury that limited his options as a free agent this offseason. He may not even suit up with the Falcons before the preseason is up. His health could become a big determining factor towards whether the Falcons pick up additional help at this position before the regular season starts.

If Pasztor is not deemed healthy enough to serve as the team’s swing tackle come opening day, it’s very likely that the Falcons will carry a fourth offensive tackle in addition to himself and starters Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder.

That could be someone currently on the roster, but the team frankly will need to see significantly better play from this group if that is going to be the case. Right now, undrafted rookie Daniel Brunskill and journeyman Kevin Graf seem to be ahead in the competition, although that is based mostly on playing time rather than steady performances. Their play has been far from spectacular, as Brunskill gave up a pair of sacks against the Steelers.

Graf probably would have the edge given that he played both right tackle and right guard against Pittsburgh, showcasing some versatility. He had his share of struggles, but relative to several other blockers on the second and third-string units, he performed okay. He’ll need to turn in better performances against the Cardinals and Jaguars if he wishes to solidify his grip as the team’s preferred reserve.

Other reserves in Andreas Knappe, D.J. Tialavea, and Wil Freeman are still in the mix. But their limited reps against the Steelers suggests that the team isn’t seriously considering them beyond practice-squad fodder at this point. They’ll need to make more waves this weekend against the Cardinals to really make a significant push.

Right now, it would be a pretty strong bet to expect the Falcons to scour the waiver wire for additional tackle help when cuts are made next weekend. At this point, nobody currently on the roster has proven trustworthy enough to be thought of as more than a practice-squad candidate. Unless that changes in the next two games, expect the Falcons to keep an eye out for a veteran player in the coming week or so.

As noted in breaking down the tight end position, the addition of a fourth offensive tackle could be exactly the move that pushes the team to cut ties with rookie tight end Eric Saubert as one can certainly make a stronger case that having reliable depth up front is more important than a fourth option at tight end, at least for the beginning of the season. Saubert will almost certainly land on the Falcons practice squad, assuming he clears waivers with the potential to be elevated on the team’s 53-man roster at a later date.

Guards

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Sean Harlow

The competition at right guard is heated and expected to come down to the wire. The Falcons haven’t quite yet determined who will be their starter for the regular season and it’s very likely that the results and performances this weekend against the Arizona Cardinals will determine it.

Based off their performances on the field, Wes Schweitzer seems to have a slight edge over Ben Garland. Schweitzer has looked a bit stouter in pass protection, handling the power of players like Stephon Tuitt more effectively against the Steelers last weekend.

Schweitzer’s draft status and Garland’s versatility to also serve as the team’s primary backup at center also might force the Falcons to lean towards the 2016 rookie if no clear-cut separation is made on Saturday. With Schweitzer only days away from his 24th birthday, beginning his long-term development in earnest seems to make the most sense for the team.

2017 fourth-round pick Sean Harlow showed significant improvement from last week’s abysmal performance against the Dolphins. In fact, he was arguably the best of the second-unit players against the Steelers. There were times where he still struggled against power, but he was not overwhelmed and embarrassed as often as he was a week before.

It was an important step for the rookie blocker to make his bid to stick on the roster. The past few years has seen at least one fourth-round pick cut by their respective team in the final cutdowns, and had Harlow had a repeat of his play in Miami against Pittsburgh last Sunday, he potentially could have been a candidate to be the next fourth-round aberration. But assuming there is no major regression against Arizona or Jacksonville in the next week, he should be relatively safe as the backup to starting left guard Andy Levitre.

However undrafted rookie Travis Averill continued his struggles last week against the Steelers and without a similar Harlow-esque improvement soon, it’s unlikely he’ll be considered even for the practice squad.

The versatility of a player like Pasztor to play inside means that the chances that the Falcons reach out for another guard off the waiver wire is low. If Graf continues to get work at guard this preseason, that also potentially closes the door on an addition.

Centers

While last week I indicated that Alex Mack doesn’t need to get significant reps during the preseason given his extensive NFL experience, I did notice that among the starters against the Steelers, he arguably looked the rustiest. That is of little consequence, but I figured in this “quasi-review” of the performances from that game, it bears mentioning. Assuming Mack bounces back this week against the Cardinals, it’s only a minor footnote.

Behind him is likely to be Garland, assuming Schweitzer wins the competition at right guard. But the team has been giving Cornelius Edison extensive reps with the second unit to see if he’s poised to be in the competition. After outperforming Harlow against Miami, Edison took somewhat a step back against Pittsburgh last Sunday.

As I noted in my last review, I think Edison might be better suited to playing guard than center. But right now his performance has been a bit too up and down snap to snap. He’ll need a stronger performance against Arizona to get back into the mix. Without it, his best hope may be to earn a spot on the Falcons practice squad.

However if Garland should win the starting right guard spot, it’ll increase the chances the Falcons opt to keep Edison around on the practice squad. While Harlow and Schweitzer have received practice reps at center at various points in their respective pasts and may continue to do so in their futures in Atlanta, it doesn’t appear they’ve received extensive practice time there to be trusted to fill in should multiple injuries occur at center. That may facilitate the need to keep another more adept center around like Edison.

Larson Graham has been underwhelming as the team’s third-string center. Like so many others along the line of scrimmage for the Falcons, his performance has been underwhelming. Without significant improvement in the coming games, he’s a longshot even for the practice squad.

Defensive Tackles

The starters along the defensive line’s interior are settled with Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe earning reps in both the base and nickel fronts for the second week in a row against the Steelers. It was once again notable that Poe spent all his time playing the three-technique with Jarrett at the one-technique/nose tackle position. As noted in last week’s breakdown, this is somewhat a reversal of expectations heading into the summer. Now that it’s occurred two weeks in row, that seems to be a much stronger indicator that this will be the plan for the upcoming season rather than a “one-off” experiment.

Behind them the Falcons are pretty settled with their depth as the team’s rotation begins to come into shape in these games. Ra’Shede Hageman pulled reps behind Jarrett, while Jack Crawford saw snaps beside him as Poe’s backup. It was notable that Crawford saw extensive reps with the second-team nickel rush against the Steelers, while Hageman’s role there was greatly diminished from what it was against the Dolphins.

That could potentially signal that Hageman’s primary role might be as a defensive tackle in the base package, with the possibility there will be times this season where he is lining up beside Poe as Jarrett needs a rest. Given Crawford’s smaller stature, it seems unlikely he’ll be deployed as often on run downs this year. Instead, he’ll likely be asked to spell Poe on passing downs. For this reason, the Falcons decision to deploy Jarrett and Poe in their respective roles seems to make a bit more sense as least in terms of making substitutions easier.

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Joe Vellano (74) generates pressure

Courtney Upshaw saw action inside in nickel sub-packages as well, but it’s likely his primary role with the team will be as a defensive end in the base defense.

Joe Vellano and Tani Tupou both continued to impress against the Steelers. It was Tupou that seemed to create more pressure this week, on the heels of Vellano’s strong game against the Dolphins.

Both are longshots to make the roster just from the sheer numbers aspect and the fact that the team’s depth along the defensive line is the sturdiest among any position group on the roster. But both are practice-squad eligible and could potentially both land there.

More likely however is that the performance of each over these next two games will determine that one remains and the other departs. Right now, I’d probably give Vellano the edge in that regard, but there’s still plenty of opportunities for Tupou to overtake him.

Defensive Ends

On the outside at end, similarly the Falcons are mostly settled. Vic Beasley is a steady presence in nickel sub-package at left defensive end, while Adrian Clayborn is expected to open the season opposite him on the right side. Clayborn will probably also get opportunities to rush the quarterback on the interior on passing downs this year, but in the mean time will stick outside to increase opportunities for Crawford.

The only major competition here is over who starts at the strong-side defensive end spot. Upshaw is being pushed there by Derrick Shelby. But it doesn’t seem like the competition is as heated as it might have been coming on the heels of the Dolphins game.

Shelby performed ably against the Steelers and continues to look mostly recovered from the Achilles tendon tear that shortened his 2016 season. But without a monster performance from him this weekend against Arizona, it seems likelier that the team is settled with Upshaw starting. They’ll both be a part of the rotation this year however and it may be possible that as Shelby recovers more, he’ll start to assert himself to earn more playing time with the starters. As has been the case during every season under head coach Dan Quinn, the rotation that starts the season is not the same as the one that finishes the year.

Brooks Reed is entrenched as the weak-side “LEO” end opposite Upshaw and Shelby. He may eventually lose time to rookie Takk McKinley as the season wears on, but it seems likely that the Falcons are content not to rush their first-round draft pick into the lineup. Against the Steelers, McKinley saw exlcusive reps as a pass-rusher in the nickel sub-package. Perhaps against the Cardinals or Jaguars, the team will give him more reps in the base defense to test him there. Until that occurs, he’ll likely serve in a similar capacity as Dwight Freeney did a year ago, which is the occasional edge-rusher opposite Beasley that splits time with Clayborn in that role. As he continues his development, the Falcons will likely increase the roles he’s utilized in with the potential hope that he’s also splitting reps with Reed in the base defense by year’s end to maximize how often he sees the field.

Another pressing question as far as competition goes at this position is whether upstart J’terius Jones makes a stronger bid to make the team. Jones seems like a shoe-in at this point to at least earn a spot on the practice squad given how well he’s played this summer. But in order to leapfrog that into a spot on the 53-man roster, he’ll likely have to be utilized on special teams before the preseason is up.

We’ve seen Chris Odom gets reps on kickoff coverage this summer, and the abundance of established bodies across the defensive line means that somebody on the bench is likely going to have to contribute on special teams to earn a place on the team’s 46-man active roster come the regular season. Last year it was Reed and Upshaw that were stepping up by year’s end. McKinley could also be a good candidate there given that his speed could be very useful on coverage units. If Jones is to make the roster, he’d have to be the guy there as well or else risk being inactive.

Odom remains in the mix for a spot on the practice squad as well, but needs to have a few more signature run stops or pressures before the preseason is over to really increase his chances. Martin Ifedi is expected to miss his third preseason game this weekend against Arizona. Unless he returns versus Jacksonville and lights the sky on fire, he seems destined to be released with an injury settlement when final cuts are made.

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.

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.

Offensive Tackles: Jake Matthews, Ryan Schraeder
Guards: Andy Levtire, Wes Schweitzer*, Ben Garland
Center: Alex Mack
Defensive Tackles: Grady Jarrett*, Dontari Poe, Ra’Shede Hageman, Jack Crawford
Defensive Ends: Vic Beasley*, Adrian Clayborn, Courtney Upshaw, Brooks Reed, Takk McKinley*, Derrick Shelby

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.

Offensive Tackle: Austin Pasztor
Guard: Sean Harlow*

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.

Offensive Tackles: Daniel Brunskill*, Kevin Graf*
Defensive Tackle: Joe Vellano*
Defensive End: J.T. Jones*

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.

Offensive Tackles: Andreas Knappe*, Wil Freeman*, D.J. Tialavea*
Guard: Travis Averill*
Centers: Cornelius Edison*, Larson Graham*
Defensive Tackle: Tani Tupou*
Defensive Ends: Chris Odom*, Martin Ifedi*

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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