We head into the final preseason game tonight against the Jacksonville Jaguars with several players under the spotlight to showcase improvement and/or skill for their last bid to make the Falcons roster.
QB Dominique Davis
While it’s possible that the Falcons will use the finale vs. Jacksonville as an opportunity to give third string quarterback Sean Renfree some more reps, Davis however needs as many reps as possible. Davis has been largely mediocre through the first three preseason games in his bid to be declared Matt Ryan’s top backup. And while it seems like the Falcons are poised to enter the season with Davis in that role regardless, the possibility still remains that the Falcons could seek additional help off the waiver wire. That possibility increases if Davis does not fare well tonight against Jacksonville. Davis has struggled with his accuracy when throwing downfield. He’s completed just 40% of the 15 passes he’s thrown 10 or more yards (per Pro Football Focus), including a pair of interceptions. That is simply not good enough. Now in the sake of fairness, Davis hasn’t been blessed with great wide receiver talent to throw to during the preseason and the play of his offensive line hasn’t been stellar either. But most of Davis’ struggles are his own. He’s struggled at times with his footwork and mechanics, leading to errant throws. He’s also made his fair share of questionable decisions. If Davis can close out the preseason with a strong performance, it will provide a lot more confidence that he is deserving of the job of being Ryan’s primary backup, rather than just being the best among a bunch of poor candidates.
OT Ryan Schraeder
Schraeder has probably solidified his spot on the roster, thanks in part to a good training camp coupled with the injury to Mike Johnson. Schraeder hasn’t been bad in the preseason, but I wouldn’t exactly qualify him as being good either. Schraeder may get the start tonight at left tackle, and may see the majority of his reps come from that side of the line. He’s fared a bit better there than he has at right tackle when working in relief of starter Lamar Holmes. Tonight gives him the opportunity to solidify his status as the team’s swing tackle. While the coaching staff likes Schraeder, and deservedly so, he still appears that he might be at least a year or two away from really being ready to carve out a significant role in the lineup. Meaning the Falcons might need to sign a veteran off the waiver wire to fill in as the top backup at tackle. A strong performance against the Jaguars could change that.
DE/DT Cliff Matthews
Matthews has been one of the more disappointing players through the preseason. He’s gotten the majority of his reps playing inside at defensive tackle when the Falcons utilize a four-man front this summer. He’s struggled to get off blocks and get leverage at the point of attack when facing the run. But he’s shown quickness when asked to get upfield and rush the quarterback. However, defending the run was a strength of Matthews a year ago when he was worked into the lineup at defensive end. He’s bulked up since then and now relative to the rest of the Falcons potential rotation up front, appears closer to a liability. While Matthews has flashed ability as a pass rusher, he’s not going to garner many snaps in that role come the regular season. His best avenue for earning reps was to show that he could spell a player like Osi Umenyiora on run downs. Thus far, that avenue appears blocked. Matthews can change that if he does a better job against the run against the Jaguars front tonight.
LB Robert James
I have contended from the start that I expected the Falcons to keep only five linebackers on their final roster thanks in part to the versatility shown from a player like Kroy Biermann. Undrafted rookies Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow have responded with strong summers to the point that they appear to be the most likely candidates to earn the two reserve spots behind the starters. That leaves a player like James potentially out of the loop. James needs a strong finish against the Jaguars in order to push for one of those five spots. But in truth, he may be closer to showing that the Falcons need to keep six linebackers instead of five with a strong performance. James has managed to stick around for the past five seasons despite making minimal contributions on regular defense. In 2012 for the first time, he was able to carve out a role on special teams with 10 tackles. However both Bartu and Worrilow have flashed ability on special teams, making James’ role there less valuable. James has already been cut three times by the Falcons, and will need a good performance against Jacksonville to stave off a fourth time.
CB Dominique Franks
Franks is a player that has been on the bubble from the start. Once seen as a promising cornerback with starting potential, he was quickly surpassed and outplayed by Robert McClain last year for the nickel cornerback spot. Franks then further hurt himself with abysmal play as the team’s punt returner. With the selection of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford this spring, it became clear that the Falcons no longer factor Franks into their future plans of developing a replacement for Asante Samuel. Now, Harry Douglas appears poised to lock down the punt return job, leaving Franks without a role. Another factor hurting Franks is his inability to produce on special teams coverage, having played minimally there over the past three seasons and never producing (zero tackles). Franks’ lone hope appeared to be the possibility that the Falcons utilized more of their dime subpackage in 2013, a role he performed ably in at the end of the 2012 season. Franks relatively speaking has had a good summer of playing cornerback, looking particularly impressive against the Ravens two weeks ago. But he’ll need to show an equally impressive performance against the Jaguars in order to prove to the Falcons that despite offering next to nothing on special teams, his value on defense more than makes up for it.