Earlier, I broke down many of the position battles and how the roster could break on the offense. Now I’m going to turn my attention to the defense which seems to have a lot less question marks.
Most of the roster spots seem relatively sewn up, but the last few spots at each position group still seem to be up in the air. And guys will have one last opportunity on Thursday night in Jacksonville to showcase their skills to make one last pitch for the roster and/or practice squad.
The Falcons have kept five defensive ends each of the past few years, but I think this year they will possibly keep a sixth. Keeping five has been their M.O. mainly because they had a young developing prospect that they didn’t trust would clear waivers to make the practice squad due to the league’s premium on pass rushers. In 2009 and 2010, it was Lawrence Sidbury that filled that role, and a year ago it was Cliff Matthews’ turn. As evidenced by Sidbury in 2010 and Matthews last year, whoever that player is rarely gets a chance to play on defense. Thus that would make keeping six seem like extravagance, since now you have two guys that are spending most Sundays inactive. But I think the battle between Jonathan Massaquoi and Matthews has been that close, that I don’t think the team wants to part with either. Massaquoi’s potential as a pass rusher probably means he’ll be higher on the depth chart than Matthews if push came to shove. But Matthews has played well this summer and played consistently with a high motor. So high in fact that you could make the argument he has the best motor of any of the ends on the team. And that’s not the type of player I could see the Falcons cutting when it comes down to it. Matthews still remains eligible for a practice squad spot, but if any team pops in tape of the Falcons previous three preseason games, one of the 31 other teams is certainly going to be impressed enough to snatch him up similar to how the Browns pounced on Emmanuel Stephens last year.
Best Guess for Final 53: Abraham, Edwards, Biermann, Sidbury, Massaquoi, Matthews
As mentioned before with my previous piece about offense, the Falcons have kept five defensive tackles the past two years on the opening day roster mainly because of injuries and suspensions. This year, that likely would have been the case had the team tried to carry Corey Peters on the active roster. But his move to their non-football injury list means that they won’t have to carry a fifth guy as they wait for Peters to get healthy. That doesn’t bode well for Micanor Regis, who has had an impressive summer. Vance Walker’s healthy return to the lineup has also probably hurt Regis’ chances. But I do think Regis would make an outstanding practice squad player to develop for the future. But then again, as discussed before with Matthews he’s no sure bet to clear waivers. Ultimately, I do believe that is a risk the Falcons are going to have to take. But looking over the roster, I don’t think Vance Walker is a lock to make the roster. Partially because the team can remove his entire $1.26 million salary from their 2012 cap. Keeping Regis instead of him, saves them around $870,000 against this year’s cap, which translates into a veteran free agent and some change. Such a move wouldn’t shock me, but it would certainly be a mild surprise. Having a player like Peters out, you probably want that veteran presence in your rotation that Walker provides rather than going with the promising, but untested rookie. Conrad Obi still remains mainly because I believe the Falcons need him to complete their depth chart against Jacksonville. But he should get his most extensive reps thus far this preseason, and thus has at least an opportunity to make the practice squad.
Best Guess for Final 53: Babineaux, Jerry, Walker, Robertson
Practice Squad: Regis
The Falcons have made a habit of keeping only six linebackers much of the time over the past several years, mainly because of their need to carry an extra player or two at other positions such as defensive tackle. This has been managed because of their ability to have a few players capable of playing more than one position. This is the exact reason why Mike Smith emphasizes cross-training in OTAs and mini-camps to prepare for such situations come cutdown day. With that in mind, I believe that trend will continue this year. Robert James has lingered around the Falcons for the past four years with very little production to justify it. He’s only played in two games and never seen a snap on regular defense, nor notched a single stop on special teams. But this summer, I do think he has performed at a high enough level that we’ve now seen why the Falcons appear to like him so much. He played very well against Baltimore, but has fallen back to Earth the past two weeks. He’ll have one more shot against Jacksonville to showcase his talents. I think what also bodes well for James being kept for a fifth year is that the undrafted guys like Rico Council, Jerrell Harris, and Pat Schiller haven’t exactly been outstanding this summer. They’ve all been fairly solid, but none have really taken full advantage of their opportunity to outplay James and make the final roster. Ultimately the Falcons will probably pick one of the three to play on the practice squad. My best guess would be Schiller. But with all that said, it also wouldn’t surprise me if the Falcons pounced on a veteran free agent this weekend if a versatile special teams player became available. If Akeem Dent is going to be the starter at middle linebacker, it will mean less snaps on special teams. I’ve mentioned before that Dent was our best special teams player last year. So his disappearance from that unit could have the team scouring the waiver wire to replace him. Coy Wire is doing good work for the Pac-12 Network, so he’s not coming back. But if that type of player becomes available, then I could see the Falcons pouncing, which could potentially end James’ tenure in Atlanta.
Best Guess for Final 53: Weatherspoon, Nicholas, Dent, Peterson, Adkins, James
Practice Squad: Schiller
The loss of Darrin Walls likely ends the likelihood that the Falcons could keep six cornerbacks this year. But it’s not an impossibility. Chris Owens has been sidelined for most of the preseason with a hamstring injury. Hamstrings are notoriously finicky in terms of recovery, and thus if the Falcons aren’t 100% sold Owens will be ready to play in Week 1, it could prompt them to carry a sixth corner. That opens the door for players like Robert McClain, Marty Markett, and Peyton Thompson. McClain is higher on the depth chart, getting a lot of the reps that Owens gave up due to injury. There has been improvement from McClain since he struggled in the opener against the Ravens. Thompson and Markett have each had their moments, but not quite enough that I think they will unseat McClain. But I do think both youngsters have good shots at making the practice squad. I should mention there is a slight chance that the Falcons cut Owens and go with one of the other players as the fifth corner, but given that Owens is one of the team’s better special teams players, makes the odds that happens seem extremely low.
Best Guess for Final 53: Grimes, Robinson, Samuel, Franks, Owens
Practice Squad: Thompson
The Falcons brought in Chris Hope at the end of June because of concerns about their safety depth. I’m not sure the concerns that existed then still exist. Charles Mitchell has had a good summer, enough so that I think the Falcons could potentially roll the dice and not have an experienced backup at the position. Safety is one of the positions that is most prone to injury on a football roster and the Falcons know this firsthand. Falcons starters have missed on average 2.2 starts due to injury over the past five seasons. And if you factor the 10 games William Moore missed as a rookie (and non-starter), the number shoots to 4.2 games missed in that same span. It means having depth you can trust at the position makes a lot of sense. But I don’t think that guarantees Hope a roster spot. Shann Schillinger seems like a better bet to stick because he is such a valuable special teams player. But it was Mitchell and Hope that played with the second unit against Miami, which is somewhat foreboding for Schillinger. Mitchell’s status as a draft pick and Schillinger’s value on special teams makes it hard for me to see the team cutting either. That could make Hope the odd man out, who has been steady, but unspectacular this summer from what I can tell. Mitchell would probably get the nod above Schillinger if push came to shove. Ultimately it boils down to how much faith do the Falcons have in their young safeties, who have yet to take a single snap on regular defense, especially given Moore’s past durability issues. Last year, I was a bit surprised that the Falcons brought Suaesi Tuimaunei back to the practice squad after what I considered a lackluster summer, but I think the team likes his toughness and potential on special teams, which makes me believe it’s possible he could get a second year on the practice squad.
Best Guess for Final 53: Moore, DeCoud, Mitchell, Schillinger
Well we already know the kicker and punter positions are sewn up. All that needs to be determined is the long snapper position. Josh Harris is behind Joe Zelenka, but seems to be improving, and is also doing a nice job on coverage units. The Falcons wouldn’t have kicked the tires on so many long snappers this off-season and kept Harris this long if he didn’t have a legit shot at supplanting Zelenka. It would definitely save the team money, but the last thing you want is an erratic snapper (see Pittman, Bryan). Thus unlike most other positions on the team, you want to keep the best guy rather than the tie going to the younger/cheaper option. At this point, I would probably give Zelenka the nod just because of his consistency and experience, but there is of course one more preseason game for Harris to close the gap or surpass him.
Best Guess for Final 53: Bryant, Bosher, Zelenka