The Falcons used their final two picks of the 2011 draft on a pair of linemen. They took Fresno State guard Andrew Jackson with the initial pick and then closed out their draft class by taking South Carolina defensive end Cliff Matthews.
Both players have the potential to add capable depth to the roster and have talent that could be worth developing down the road, but could find it tough to get over the initial hurdle of just making the team as rookies.
In both cases, they were drafted at positions which are relatively deep for the Falcons. Arguably, the two deepest spots on the entire roster: offensive guard and defensive end. While it’s no secret that the Falcons face questions at both spots, they have done a good job accumulating depth there.
At guard, both starters, Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl might become free agents before the summer is done. If that is the case, it will weaken the position. But the team still has Mike Johnson, last year’s third round pick and Garrett Reynolds, a fifth round pick from 2009 to potentially fill in. The team can also move around tackle Jose Valdez or center Joe Hawley to bolster competition and depth. In such a situation, Jackson would be a valuable commodity in 2012 and beyond as potential competition for either Johnson or Reynolds as starters, whichever does not perform the highest in 2011. But more than likely, the Falcons will be successful at bringing back at least one of their free agent guards, if not both, lessening Jackson’s value as an insurance policy inside.
At end, while the Falcons pass rush is a weakness, the team does sport some capable depth at the position. Kroy Biermann and John Abraham are the starters and are the best pass rushers of the group and get the most reps deservedly. Behind them are a solid pair of run stuffers in Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis. While neither Anderson or Davis do much as pass rushers, they do provide quality depth because they are two of the better run-defending defensive ends in the league. And then behind them, the team has Lawrence Sidbury, who had a disappointing 2010 campaign, but is poised to enter a make or break summer as far as his NFL future goes. As a rookie, it’s unlikely Matthews is going to be an improved run defender over any of the players ahead of him, particularly considering how light he is (257 pounds). And while he has some potential as an edge rusher, he still needs a lot of polish before he can relied upon to take a significant role in the rotation. A comparable amount of work to what Sidbury has needed thus far in his two seasons with the team. So it’s unlikely that he could leapfrog any of their other ends in that capacity. As is the case with Jackson, Matthews provides the team good insurance for 2012 and beyond due to the possibility that Biermann, Abraham, and Anderson might not all be back due to their contracts being up.
It seems in both cases, both Jackson and Matthews are in positions where it’s going to be tough for them to be carried on the roster. Particularly in an off-season where there have been no rookie mini-camps and are getting a very late start on integrating with the playbook and schemes.
Both players seem more likely to land on the 8-man practice squad rather than the 53-man roster. NFL teams typically keep nine offensive linemen on the rotation, with seven being active on game day. That’s the five starters and two reserves, typically an interior player that can play center and guard (Hawley), and a swing tackle (Svitek). Even if none of the Falcons free agents were kept, and Johnson, Reynolds, and Svitek became the starters, then it’s likely Jose Valdez would think slide into the seventh spot as the swing tackle. Reynolds is no higher than eighth in the nine-man group currently on the roster, discounting the team’s three key free agents. For every free agent the team opts to bring back, that will push him even further down the depth chart.
Even though the Falcons pass rush is weak, Matthews isn’t likely to add a lot to it as a rookie. It takes time to develop as pass rushers in this league. That’s one of the reasons why Sidbury has contributed little to date. The last time a rookie seventh round defensive end recorded more than two sacks in his rookie season was 2004 with Jacksonville’s Bobby McCray (3.5 sacks). He was helped by the fact that he managed to start 7 games that year on a Jaguars defensive line that was riddled with injuries. Prior to that point, the only player without the benefit of starting five or more games was Mike McCrary who had 4 sacks with Seahawks in 1993, almost twenty years ago. So anybody expecting Matthews to make significant contributions as a rookie is a fairly tall order. He’s likely to compete with Sidbury and Davis for the backup spot behind Abraham at right defensive end. The Falcons have kept five defensive ends the past two seasons, but I’m not sure they can continue to afford to do that especially if that fifth end isn’t really contributing much in the rotation.
It does not help their odds that not a single one of the team’s three seventh round picks drafted by Thomas Dimitroff actually made the initial 53-man roster. In the case of Vance Walker in 2009, he was re-signed to the roster once Peria Jerry went down with injury and has held on since. Keith Zinger came back and made the team the following summer after being on the practice squad his entire rookie season. But Wilrey Fontenot was cut by the team and wound up going to the Arizona Cardinals practice squad, and has since been out of football.
Ideally, they will follow the path set forth by Walker, and be able to carve out significant depth roles going forward. But like Zinger, will probably have to wait a full season to get that chance. But it’s possible that they could wind up like Fontenot, and try their hand at catching on with another NFL franchise.
But perhaps the Falcons brass can be buoyed by this. If there is a year where you probably won’t see a lot of draft picks on practice squads switch teams, it will likely be this year. It’s going to be tough on a rookie to try to quickly get up to speed in their own team’s systems, then get cut, and then try to do the same in a brand new system with another team. So even if players as talented as Jackson and Matthews do land on the Falcons practice squad this year, other NFL teams probably won’t be as enticed to try and sign them away. They are barely going to know the Falcons system, so it’s even a bigger hurdle to try and learn a brand new one. The months of September, October, and November on the practice squad will likely substitute the months of May, June, and August that would normally be used to try and get up to speed with their respective teams.