Last week I broke down all 82 players that appeared in the Atlanta Falcons’ preseason loss to the Miami Dolphins in a three-part series.
Full disclosure, I didn’t have the energy or desire to do that again this week for the team’s second preseason action against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But I do think it’s worth sharing some of my observations from that game in the context of how it is effective different position battles.
Last week, I noted that it was tough to draw significant conclusions about who is or isn’t making a strong bid towards making the roster, as one preseason game is insufficient for such opinions. Now that we have two exhibition games under our belt, I think the picture is beginning to resolve itself somewhat.
It’s still early in the process and the Falcons’ upcoming third preseason action against the Arizona Cardinals is an important test for the team’s starting offense. For the players that already have solidified roles, they want to put their best foot forward this week. We’ve seen in past years where a poor performance in the third preseason game has led to the Dan Quinn-led coaching staff to significantly shuffle aspects of their roster.
Yet it is the final preseason game that will come next Thursday against the Jacksonville Jaguars that marks the all-important game that will determine whether several of the “bubble” players actually make the team. So while I’ll be making stronger conclusions this week about which direction some of these roster battles are headed, there is still plenty of time for things to change.
Similarly, this breakdown will be split into three parts in order to diminish the amount of reading you’ll be forced to do (although it will still be a lot). This first part will handle the offensive skill positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end.
Let’s get started…
It shouldn’t be deemed controversial in the slightest that this is one of the more defined roster spots on the team. Matt Ryan was always going to be the unquestioned starter and barring a complete evaporation of his skills, Matt Schaub was always going to be his backup.
The only real question about this position entering the summer was whether or not Matt Simms or Alek Torgersen showed enough to compel the Falcons to keep a third passer either on the roster or practice squad. In the hopes that one could be penciled in as a long-term replacement to the 36-year old Schaub, who could potentially hang up his cleats after this season. Thus far the early returns through two games suggest the answer is no.
Simms got the bulk of the work against the Steelers and still had his issues with accuracy and decision making. Although it’s not all his fault since Simms has been forced to suffer through poor blocking throughout these first two weeks of the exhibition season. However despite that limitation, Simms has done little to indicate that his play in a vacuum is worth keeping around, especially now that his practice squad eligibility expired last season.
Both players will still have two more opportunities to impress this coaching staff, but without significant improvement, it seems likely that the Falcons will carry just two quarterbacks into 2017.
The question at this position centered on who would win the battle for the third running back position behind Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. That battle seemed pitched between incumbent Terron Ward, rookie fifth-round pick Brian Hill and possible dark horse B.J. Daniels.
Entering the summer, most expected Hill’s draft status and upside would win him the gig without much competition. However through two games, Ward has clearly created a significant amount of separation in this battle to a point that it would be a major upset at this point if he didn’t maintain it through the end of the preseason.
Ward has been the lone Falcon running back that has found any significant success running behind questionable trench play. He’s also showcased his prowess as a blocker in pass protection and also performed ably on special teams. It all goes to show that experience still matters somewhat in this league and the coaching staff’s seeming trust in him over the past two years is bearing fruit.
Hill has struggled at times. While he’s ran hard, he’s found almost no daylight behind the second and third-string offensive lines blocking ahead of him. He’s missed some assignments in pass protection, including one against the Steelers that nearly led to a safety of Simms. Blitz pickup is one of the few hurdles that can limit young running backs entering the NFL, and the Falcons rookie out of Wyoming has proven to be no exception.
Ultimately the role of the third running back boils down to the ability to perform on special teams and as a third-down option given that the opportunities to run the ball will be somewhat limited with Freeman and Coleman atop the depth chart. Ward has done everything in his power to showcase why he is most deserving of that role headed into the season.
Hill on the other hand might have to settle for being the fourth running back on the depth chart. Carrying four running backs on the roster seems like a luxury, but as I’ll explain further with other position groups, it is not. Simply because few at other spots have emerged to make it appear so. Beyond the core 18 or so players that will be active each week on offense throughout the regular season, Hill has been one of the stronger performers this summer to earn a spot for what will likely be six or seven remaining spots on the roster.
As for Daniels, an injury led to his exit already from the team last week. His two replacements on the roster: Kelvin Taylor and Jhurell Pressley, have done little to stand out and make the battle at running back more than a two-person race between Ward and Hill.
This position represents one of the few among the offensive skill group that features a legitimate battle for a starting spot. But through two games, veteran Derrick Coleman seemingly has emerged as the front-runner to win the job. Tyler Renew played well versus the Dolphins, but on only two snaps against the Steelers, really did little to push his resumé forward last week.
Coleman has by no means blown the doors off this competition, but without a really poor performance this week against the Cardinals or Renew absolutely lighting the world on fire in the followup against the Jaguars, it’s hard to see anything upending what seems inevitable: Coleman starting the season as the team’s replacement for Patrick DiMarco.
Coleman also has been featured as a regular “starter” on the team’s special teams units, likely carving out a role on both kickoff and punt coverage. Renew has yet to see any real reps there. Unless that changes this week against the Cardinals, there’s no reason to believe that the Falcons coaching staff is considering this to be a real competition since the starting fullback will have play on special teams during the regular season.
Right now, the best bet for Renew will be to impress enough in these last two games that he can land a possible spot on the practice squad.
This position group features one of the less settled competitions among the skill positions although it seems that injury is the only thing that will upset who the team’s top quintet will be at this position. Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu are the unquestioned starters, with Taylor Gabriel and Justin Hardy serving as their backups. Andre Roberts looks poised to handle the fifth spot as an occasional reserve on offense and returner on special teams.
However there have been several young players that are making a strong push for a potential sixth roster spot and that is likely a competition that is so tight and close that it’ll come down to the final possession against the Jaguars before a clear-cut winner is determined. The positive for many of the competitors is that even if they don’t land on the 53-man roster, they still can be retained by the Falcons on their practice squad.
Leading the charge for a potential sixth slot at wide receiver are incumbent Nick Williams and newcomers Marvin Hall and Reggie Davis.
Williams is a known commodity since he’s been with the Falcons for two years. Similarly to Ward at running back, Williams is a player that the coaching staff trusts can do his job. As a slot receiver that has proven himself as a competent contributor on offense as well as capable of stepping up on special teams, he’s the seasoned candidate. Right now it’s hard to see the Falcons completely cutting ties with him for those reasons unless another receiver-needy team comes calling with a request to make a trade before the summer is up.
If the Falcons do wind up letting Williams walk, it could also be largely due to the performances of Hall and Davis impressing them that much.
Right now all indications seem to point to Hall being the front-runner in this battle. His work with the first-unit offense in both preseason games is the strongest indicator that he’s leading this competition. After all with a 53-player limit on who can make the roster, NFL teams aren’t in the habit of stashing players on there that can’t potentially contribute on Sundays. Hall’s developing rapport with Ryan and his solid play on special teams at least covering punts as a gunner suggest that he’s very NFL ready.
While Hall did drop a wide-open touchdown against the Steelers, an occasional drop is not a “cuttable” offense especially when Hall has made impressive catches elsewhere and shown he can separate from coverage.
Davis too has stood out on as a gunner on the punt team and once again showcased game-breaking potential against the Steelers on a 44-yard vertical strike. Davis has definitely helped himself through the first two weeks with a couple of signature catches and has ample opportunity to continue to impress in the upcoming action to close out the summer. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on whether Davis earns any reps with the starters this week, as that’ll signal that the coaching staff feels that he, like Williams or Hall, could step into the void potentially created should one of the top five wideouts go down with an injury for a game or two come the fall. If not, then Davis may just have to settle for being a practice-squad player.
While it’s unlikely that Anthony Dablé is in serious contention for a roster spot with three players potentially ahead of him, he’s done more than enough to indicate that he’s a strong candidate for a practice-squad slot.
Between the quartet of Williams, Hall, Davis and Dablé, the Falcons probably will only keep three at most. Only one of which is likely to make the 53-man roster, but the other two should be practice squadders. Hurting Dablé’s chances is the fact that he’ll turn 29 in September, making him the oldest of the group and the one presumably with the least amount of long-term potential. Although there’s a world where the Falcons can turn him into a poor man’s Sanu with another year or so’s development.
There is clear separation between that group of four and the next at the bottom of the receiver depth chart. Deante Burton, Reginald Davis, Deante Burton and Bra’lon Cherry have had some positive moments over the past two weeks, but they need more. In all four players’ cases, they’re likely waiting for an opportunity to really shine in the fourth preseason game to really make their bids. And at this point, their best hopes might be only as a member of the Falcons practice squad.
Overall, this is a position group that is relatively unsettled and it’s too close to call at this point. Everybody towards the back end of the depth chart will be hoping to make the most of their opportunities in the next two games because of it.
Like the other skill positions, the Falcons are pretty settled at the top of their tight end depth chart. Austin Hooper will start, while Levine Toilolo serves as his primary backup. The questions at this position come in terms of the depth behind them and how many tight ends the team feels it can afford to keep.
Entering camp it seemed likely that both Josh Perkins and Eric Saubert would find their way to the roster, but that seems less likely now.
Perkins is clearly working as the team’s third tight end and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. Saubert has struggled as a blocker and has been flagged numerous times in both preseason games, nullifying too many positive gains and hurting the team’s offense. Also, he hasn’t offset that by making plays in the passing game, much like Perkins did a year ago as an undrafted rookie when his solid pass-catching abilities overshadowed subpar blocking.
In the case of Perkins, his inability to make significant gains as a blocker through the first two preseason games may not cost him a job, but it could diminish the role he could potentially carve out on offense this season. With the injury to Jacob Tamme midway through 2016, Perkins was elevated into the third spot behind Hooper and Toilolo and the Falcons diminished the number of three-tight end sets they used thereafter.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Falcons utilized three-tight end sets on 58 plays during the first seven games when Tamme, Toilolo and Hooper were their main trio of tight ends, roughly an average of 8.3 plays per game. After Tamme’s injury over the final nine regular-season games, the number of three-tight end sets dropped to just 18 total plays, only two per game. That increased slightly with an average of 4.7 plays per game during the postseason.
Last year, it was easy to point to Perkins’ youth and inexperience leading the Falcons towards dialing back their usage of three tight ends. Now with a season under his belt, the expectation is that Perkins should be able to get more involved. But his struggles as a blocker against Pittsburgh might be an indicator that the utilization of three tight ends won’t be as significant a part of the Falcons offense in 2017, more reminiscent of its usage in the latter half of the season. But Perkins still has two more opportunities to win back coaches’ confidence.
The same applies to Saubert, who really needs to have a few less mental errors and a few more signature plays to make the roster. If not, he’s still a sure bet to make the practice squad. Without a significant improvement in his own play over the next two games, Saubert’s chances of making the 53-man roster are going to be linked to injury. Right now, his underwhelming play has made him expendable. Should an injury at another position force the Falcons to carry an extra body there headed into Week One, Saubert will likely be the guy that loses his job to make room.
Darion Griswold is also in the mix, but is a long shot to make the roster at this point. He’s really competing for an opportunity on the practice squad. Complicating things for Griswold is the likelihood that the Falcons will likely keep the four tight ends ahead of him and also the fact that they already have one tight end already designated for the practice squad in International player Alex Gray. Griswold will have to impress enough to make the possibility of retaining six tight ends worthwhile to the team. A prospect that becomes less likely given that Griswold has yet to stand out. Given the blocking deficiencies of Perkins and Saubert, demonstrating stronger blocking would be Griswold’s best avenue to making the roster. While he is better than the aforementioned pair in that regard, he has yet to showcase exceptional blocking abilities. He’ll need to in the coming games if he wants to increase his slim odds of sticking.
Here’s my best guess at which players at the offensive skill positions will likely find themselves on the Falcons 53-man roster, assuming they are healthy. An asterisk (*) indicates a player that is eligible for the practice squad. The double asterisk (**) is an International Player that will automatically be added as the 11th man on the practice squad.
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.
Quarterbacks: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub
Running Backs: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman*, Terron Ward*
Wide Receivers: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy*, Andre Roberts
Tight Ends: Austin Hooper*, Levine Toilolo
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.
Running Back: Brian Hill*
Fullback: Derrick Coleman
Tight End: Josh Perkins*
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.
Wide Receivers: Marvin Hall*, Nick Williams*, Reggie Davis*
Tight End: Eric Saubert*
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.
Quarterbacks: Matt Simms, Alek Torgersen*
Running Backs: Kelvin Taylor*, Jhurell Pressley*
Fullback: Tyler Renew*
Wide Receivers: Anthony Dablé*, Deante Burton*, Bra’lon Cherry*, Reginald Davis III*, Josh Magee*
Tight Ends: Darion Griswold*, Alex Gray**