As the Atlanta Falcons take on the Baltimore Ravens tonight in their preseason finale, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has things to ponder as he makes decisions on the final 53-man roster. With final say over the makeup of the team, Quinn will cast the deciding vote for many roster battles.
Here are a look at five positional battles that remain unsettled heading into the final game and those players vying for the opportunity to make the Falcon’s roster in 2015.
Candidates: Rex Grossman, Sean Renfree, T.J. Yates
Leader: Grossman; Out of the Mix: Yates
The play of the reserve quarterbacks has been a major question mark throughout the preseason, leading to the team to give a call to Grossman last week. The 12th-year veteran is likely to get his first action as a Falcons backup tonight against the Ravens. Given his experience in Kyle Shanahan’s system, it’s very likely that the Falcons new offensive coordinator would prefer to have a familiar face like Grossman’s working behind Matt Ryan this year at quarterback.
But that doesn’t make Grossman a lock to make the team. Renfree has done a lot of good things so far this summer, yet hasn’t done quite enough to outright win the backup job. He should have that opportunity against the Ravens, as it marks his final chance this summer to indicate that he’s ready to be a No. 2 quarterback in the NFL.
Renfree has shown good accuracy, timing and decision-making throughout the summer. Those are three areas that have never been huge strengths in Grossman’s game and thus the quarterback who has the stronger performance tonight will win the battle. However if Renfree is unable to show that he’s clearly the best candidate, then Grossman is likely to win by default.
That likely leaves Yates out of the mix. Garnering all of the reserve reps last week against the Miami Dolphins, Yates did little to prove that he’s not at the bottom of the totem pole. While there’s a chance that the Falcons opt to keep three quarterbacks if both Grossman and Renfree look promising, there’s very little chance that Yates is among those three. Yates’ only hope is that Grossman is disastrous in his debut, and the Falcons don’t trust Renfree enough to fully dive head-first into the regular season with a backup passer that has yet to play in a regular season game. Essentially Yates doesn’t really control his destiny. Renfree and Grossman do, and Yates has set the bar so low that their play doesn’t need to be particularly inspired to remain above him.
Candidates: Patrick DiMarco, Collin Mooney
Leader: ???; Out of the Mix: ???
Flip a coin and you’ll likely have just as much luck picking who will be lining up at fullback for the Falcons when the regular season begins.
As far as their abilities as lead blockers go, there have been positive signs from both players. A potential tie-breaker has been their work on special teams throughout this summer, but even there both players have made plays and created little separation between each other.
If forced to pick a lead candidate, DiMarco probably would get the slightest of nods given the fact that he’s more of a known commodity since he’s handled this job for the past two years. If DiMarco has another advantage, it’s the fact that he’s a little bigger than Mooney, suggesting that there is more potential for him to be a bit more of bruiser when it comes to clearing lanes for Falcons running backs this season. But even still, that perceived advantage hasn’t been apparent this summer.
Mooney has a big 60-yard pass play on his resume that is certainly a more memorable play than any that DiMarco has made this summer, but in truth will probably play little factor in his favor. In the end, the Falcons will pick the player that they feel like helps them out in the run game the best and/or can do the best things on special teams if the former is too hard to determine.
Unfortunately for Mooney, he might have a slightly steeper hill to climb since he probably needs to take DiMarco’s job as opposed to vice versa. This final game against the Ravens will be both players’ final opportunities to win the battle.
Sixth Wide Receiver
Candidates: Eric Weems, Nick Williams
Leader: Weems; Out of the Mix: Neither
While I wrote in my breakdown from the Dolphins game that I suspect Weems is unlikely to be cut, it’s not set in stone. Weems’ primary value is that he’s clearly the team’s most reliable player on special teams coverage. There simply isn’t another receiver on the roster that can fill that void even though the Falcons have given plenty of reps there for Leonard Hankerson, Carlton Mitchell, Justin Hardy and Williams this summer. But given the fact that this is a brand new coaching staff under Quinn, there’s no guarantee they will value him as much as the previous staff did even despite the lingering presence of Keith Armstrong as special teams coordinator.
The fact that wide receiver Devin Hester is suffering from turf toe might increase the chances that Williams sticks given that he’s functioned as the team’s top backup behind Hester as both a kickoff and punt returner. While Weems has extensive experience as a returner dating from his time in Atlanta previously, he looked very limited in that role last summer while still with the Chicago Bears, which was likely a major reason that led to his release and eventually returning to the Falcons.
Williams is a good insurance policy behind Hester if the latter is nicked up. But if Hester proves healthy enough to go Week One, then it’s likely that Williams might have to settle for a practice squad spot.
Backup Defensive End
Candidates: Kroy Biermann, Malliciah Goodman, Stansly Maponga, Cliff Matthews
Leader: Biermann; Out of the Mix: ???
It’s hard to declare anyone out of the mix. Matthews is probably lowest on the totem pole given that he missed quite a bit of time this summer with injury. But what he does bring to the table more than the others is his ability to bolster run support. He’s the most natural fit playing strong-side defensive end in the base defense should Tyson Jackson get injured. But the Falcons have notably given Grady Jarrett reps there this summer, and could also potentially move Ra’Shede Hageman there if need be, making Matthews a bit more expendable.
Biermann is probably the safest of the group given his versatility. He’s worked both as a LEO in their base and nickel sets, as well as worked at strong-side linebacker. The looming injury to Brooks Reed probably gives Biermann a significant boost on his chances of making the team.
While Maponga has flashed good ability as a pass-rusher at LEO, he’s been buried with the third-team defense throughout the summer. The fact that ahead of him on the depth chart are Vic Beasley, Biermann and O’Brien Schofield potentially makes him expendable. But if either Biermann or Schofield are forced to start in place of Reed at linebacker for an extended period of time, Maponga gives the team another potentially much-needed body at defensive end.
Goodman is hurt by the fact that he’s looked his best this summer playing inside in the team’s nickel sub-package. That’s because the Falcons already have plenty of other options to play there with Jonathan Babineaux and Adrian Clayborn being the “starters” there. Hageman and Jarrett also have worked there as well, giving the team some other options to deploy there in the event of injury.
However, Goodman is helped by the fact that he’s arguably looked better than Hageman or Jarrett when working inside on passing downs. He also showed some good things as a strong-side defensive end against the Titans, but hasn’t garnered any in-game reps there since Matthews returned to the lineup. That does give Goodman some versatility, which should help his cause in the same fashion it does for Biermann.
It’s likely that at least two of these players will stick on the final roster, with a decent possibility that three of them remain in Atlanta. But it’s almost a certainty (barring injury) that all four don’t make it. How things play out against the Ravens could go a long way to cementing each players’ status with the team.
Backup Outside Linebacker
Candidates: Tyler Starr, Nate Stupar, Terrell Manning, Derek Akunne
Leader: Starr; Out of the Mix: Manning
It’s going to be hard to decide how this position is going to play out until the Falcons get some confirmation on Reed’s injury. If Reed misses a significant chunk of the season, then it certainly will help Starr’s chances of making the team.
While O’Brien Schofield is technically the team’s backup strong-side linebacker, the Falcons have utilized Biermann there as well. But both players have shown more as pass-rushers at defensive end than when they’ve been asked to play in space at linebacker. Starr has the opposite situation, looking better at linebacker than when he’s put his hand on the ground this summer. While Starr’s made a couple of plays this summer, a strong outing against the Ravens could be critical to solidifying his status for a roster.
Stupar has tumbled down the depth chart this preseason, as he opened against the Titans as the backup middle linebacker. By the time we reached the third game against the Dolphins, he was actually their fourth option on the weak side. However like Weems, Stupar’s saving grace is potentially his special teams ability. While he hasn’t made a ton of plays in that arena this summer, he has a strong body of work dating back to last season when he was among the team’s best cover men on kickoffs and punts. If he’s kept on the roster, it’ll be because the team wants him to continue showing value there. Unfortunately, his performances on defense have left a lot to be desired this summer. He has one final opportunity against Baltimore to change that.
Manning and Akunne are probably outside the bubble, particularly the latter. Manning’s already been cut once, but due to misfiled paperwork, remains on the roster. Barring a dominant performance against the Ravens, he’s likely a goner and may just have to settle for a practice-squad spot if he has remaining eligibility.
Akunne is hurt by injury after showing good promise the first two preseason games. His emergence was likely a major cause of Stupar’s tumble down the depth chart. He’s expected to make a return tonight against the Ravens, and it’ll be his final opportunity to make his bid for a roster spot. The positive for him is that he remains eligible for the practice squad should things not break in his favor tonight.