Roster Talk: Examining the Falcons 53-Man Roster

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsAtlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff (left) and head coach Dan Quinn

In the spirit of Ben Grazebrook, who offered a brilliant breakdown of every player on the Atlanta Falcons’ 53-man roster on his own blog, I’m going to offer my own insights into the makeup of the team’s roster, position-by-position.

I won’t offer insights on every player on the roster, but the general impression of each position group with some key highlights as to why certain players made the roster and others did not.

Quarterback

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Sean Renfree

Sean Renfree was selected as the team’s backup, largely because he was the most consistent and reliable option among the competitors this summer. T.J. Yates was far too inaccurate and erratic with his decision-making to be trusted in the backup role and Rex Grossman looked out of shape and rusty in his only preseason action. There was some possibility that in time Grossman could have worked back into shape given enough time, but given how precious spots on the 53-man roster are, it wasn’t deemed worth it by head coach Dan Quinn, when there are other areas of the roster that could be upgraded.

So Renfree essentially won the gig by default. But Renfree has shown steady growth over each of the past three summers and the Falcons’ coaches likely trust in the notion that they can trust Renfree to run the offense and manage a game should the need arise.

Ultimately that it what most teams look for in their backup quarterbacks, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan likely has the belief that if starter Matt Ryan is going to miss time this year, that Renfree can somewhat facilitate the offense. The biggest concern about Renfree’s game is whether he can hold up under pressure, as he didn’t see a ton while working with the backups this summer and with a potentially piecemeal offensive line protecting him in 2015, that is a legitimate question mark for Renfree moving forward.

The other issue he’ll have to deal with is questionable arm strength. During his final season at Duke and his rookie season in Atlanta, Renfree dealt with injuries to his throwing arm and there doesn’t seem to be the same amount of zip on most of his throws that appeared when he first entered the league. So if Renfree was ever inserted into the lineup, one wonders how much the Falcons offense will rely on short routes and throws rather than the intermediate and deeper passes necessary to have a fully functional offense.

But the positive in Renfree’s case is that if he is ever found in that situation, hopefully he’ll have a playmaker like wide receiver Julio Jones to throw to that will make hitting those deep passes infinitely easier.

Running Back

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Terron Ward

Terron Ward making the team was less of a surprise but rather confounding, especially in light of the team dumping running back Antone Smith. Ward caught the attention of the Falcons’ coaching staff in camp and when both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were absent from the lineup early in August. Surprisingly it was Ward that was taking the vast majority of starting reps, not the far more experienced Smith.

In 2014, Smith never really looked like a “true” running back in the sense of being someone that was capable of being the sort of traditional back that you can hand the ball off to and expect him to make his way to and through holes. Instead, he was a pure playmaker that was dangerous when the Falcons were able to find ways to get him the ball in space. That coupled with his outstanding abilities as a gunner on special teams seemed to make him a safe bet to make the team despite missing most of the summer with a hamstring injury.

But it appeared the new Falcons coaching staff had other ideas and opted for Ward. Unfortunately for Ward, he’s ostensibly replacing a fan favorite in Smith and did very little on his own to earn affection from the fan base with subpar play in the preseason. There were too many times where he looked slow to the hole, stiff when trying to change direction and missed too many assignments in pass protection. Essentially what the coaching staff saw in Ward during those early summer practices was not apparent to any viewer of the Falcons’ four preseason games.

Only time will tell what sort of value and upside Ward possesesses, but in his case he was a very effective third-down option during his days at Oregon State, and it’s perhaps this role that the Falcons foresee Ward taking down the road.

Fullback

Much like Renfree, Patrick DiMarco won the fullback position by default thanks to a season-ending injury to Collin Mooney. While Mooney made two notable plays during the preseason that got the fan base excited about his potential by sprinting 60 yards on an outlet pass and scooping up a fumble to score on a one-yard run, neither were really indicative that he was a better fullback than DiMarco.

While the fates may have conspired against the Army veteran in Mooney from making the Falcons roster this year, they may have wound up giving the Falcons a better option at fullback. DiMarco did little to create any separation from Mooney, but his superior size at least on paper suggests he should be better at creating space when leading Falcons’ running backs through holes this season.

Regardless of who is the better option, neither player seemed poised to offer substantial ability in the realm of blocking this year. Words like serviceable and competent rather than good would be used to describe both players’ blocking.

Wide Receiver

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Nick Williams

The Falcons surprised many by keeping seven wide receivers with Nick Williams being the extraneous bit. The six receivers ahead of him were players that by the start of camp most felt were near locks to make the team.

Williams’ solid play during the preseason did however raise the possibility that the Falcons would opt to keep him over special-teams maven Eric Weems as the sixth receiver but the Falcons know that Weems is far too valuable on their coverage units to let walk. The Falcons tried Williams, Justin Hardy, Carlton Mitchell and Leonard Hankerson on their various special teams coverage units throughout the preseason, but none showed enough to suggest that Weems was potentially expendable.

It doesn’t seem likely that the Falcons will opt to carry seven wide receivers on their roster for the entire 2015 campaign. Williams’ presence likely can be tied to the turf toe injury that is currently hobbling Devin Hester. Williams served as the team’s primary reserve at return specialist throughout the summer. While he lacks the explosive potential of a Hester or Bernard Reedy, he’s a consistent returner that can get the yardage that is there. It makes perfect sense for the Falcons to carry Williams as an extra body on the roster in the event that Hester is sidelined early in the season as he recovers from the turf toe injury.

Williams could linger for longer than the first few weeks given the notoriety of turf toe to linger for extended periods. While certainly not the athlete that Hester is, I myself had a bout of turf toe that bothered me throughout the years of 2005 and 2006 (from playing soccer) and understand that it’s an injury that is notoriously difficult to heal fully. One false step and it can flare up again.

There’s a good bet that one of the reasons why the Falcons have yet to fully fill their 10-man practice squad is the potential that if/when Hester does return fully to the fold, Williams will take up that final slot on the practice unit.

Tight End

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Levine Toilolo

While Quinn suggested in a recent post-practice interview that the team fully intends to carry two tight ends for the time being, it’s difficult to see the Falcons and let alone any NFL team making it through an entire 16-game with just two options at the position. Especially when neither option offers substantial blocking ability.

While backup Levine Toilolo has a reputation as a good blocker or at least that of someone with the potential to be good, it rarely shows up on film. Going back to his final year at Stanford three years ago, Toilolo is substantially underwhelming as an inline blocker. I’m of the belief that is linked to his immense size which prevents him from consistently getting leverage in the “low man’s game” that is called  blocking. This was the same problem that Garrett Reynolds had for years as the Falcons’ starting right guard. And while Toilolo’s 6’8″ frame gives him a potential advantage against 6’2″ linebackers when it comes to catching passes, it becomes problematic when asked to seal the edge or get position on run plays.

The Falcons added Marcel Jensen to their practice squad, but he’s another tall (6’6″) tight end that despite a 270-pound frame is probably even more underwhelming as a blocker. The team’s two best blockers this summer were Tony Moeaki and D.J. Tialavea. The former was released while the latter will spend the year on injured reserve with a knee injury. It’s certainly possible that the Falcons will bring back Moeaki or another blocking specialist later this season if/when the need should arise, so for the time being there’s really no reason to be overly concerned.

Offensive Line

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Joe Hawley

Anybody that had been successfully able to wade through my very long-winded preseason breakdowns probably was at least aware of the possibility that center Joe Hawley was being increasingly marginalized by the new coaching staff. As I said after reviewing each preseason game, the impression I gained from how the coaching staff were deploying Hawley and Mike Person at center suggested that there was a fairly open competition for the role.

Most bought into the notion that the team’s insistence of playing Person with the starters was more as an insurance policy in case Hawley’s knee became problematic further down the line. But as I suggested after the Miami Dolphins game, if the Falcons were concerned about Hawley’s knee, the most plausible solution was to allow it to rest as much as possible this summer rather than asking him to play extended reps with the backups.

But despite that lingering suspicion in the back of my mind, it was still a shock to see Hawley released earlier this week in favor of Gino Gradkowski. After Hawley’s release and the much reviled benching of guard Jon Asamoah, it’s very clear that the new coaching staff is moving in a new direction at the position and looking for players that fit what they want.

In retrospect it may not be that surprising, as similar moves were made in Seattle while Quinn was the defensive coordinator there. In 2010, three weeks into the season the Seahawks made several additions to their roster. Those changes were thanks largely to injury rather than poor play forcing the Seahawks to re-shuffle their starting five on a nearly weekly basis that season. In the end, the Seahawks wound up with 10 different combinations of five starters opening games for them in 2010.

The Falcons obviously hope to stave off that lack of continuity with the moves they’ve made this week, plugging in Andy Levitre at left guard and hoping that Bryce Harris, Gino Gradkowski and possibly Jake Long can provide much-needed depth across the line.

Person is set to open the season as the starter at center, but presumably there is going to be a fairly short leash on him given the presences of James Stone and now Gradkowski behind him. And if Long should join the team and prove healthy, then the Falcons probably won’t be as patient with right tackle Ryan Schraeder as they could be. Schraeder was arguably the worst player on the field in the infamous outing against the Dolphins this summer and likely didn’t engender a huge degree of confidence in the new coaching staff.

But for the time being, the Falcons will probably roll with a starting five consisting of Jake Matthews, Levitre, Person, Chris Chester and Schraeder to start the season. Whether or not that will remain the unit for the entirety of the season will depend on health and positive play. Things will likely start slow as the group tries to gel, but if anybody should stand out from the rest as a liability, then the Falcons at least now have the options behind them to pull the plug.

That wasn’t necessarily the case before with players like Tyler Polumbus, Pierce Burton, Stone, Hawley and Asamoah serving as the second unit. Now the Falcons at least have more options to tinker with in the future, hoping that they eventually land on the right combination of the best five blockers at some point early in 2015.

Defensive Line

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Stansly Maponga

The Falcons were pretty much set here for the most part given there were eight players by the midpoint of the summer that you knew were virtual locks to stick on the roster. Those would be three members of the team’s base package: Paul Soliai, Ra’Shede Hageman and Tyson Jackson; the trio of nickel rushers: Jonathan Babineaux, O’Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn and the team’s two rookies: Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett.

The only major questions were just how many roster spots behind those eight would exist and who the team saw filling them. Eventually, they settled on two with Kroy Biermann and Malliciah Goodman. Those weren’t surprises, although one thought that Stansly Maponga showed enough as a pass-rusher to not risk going through waivers. But the Falcons cut Maponga, gambled that another team wouldn’t scoop him up and now he’s back on the practice squad. That won’t stop another pass-rush-needy team from nabbing him at a later date, but for the time being, the Falcons still have him within arm’s reach.

Cliff Matthews’ departure isn’t a major surprise, as the ankle injury that kept him out for nearly two weeks this summer forced him into an uphill battle that he wasn’t poised to win.

The major concern at this position is the lack of depth behind the starters in each package. If Jackson or Soliai were to go down with an injury, there is no clear-cut option for the team to turn to at either strong-side defensive end or nose tackle. Hageman and/or Goodman would likely be the choices if the Falcons were in a pinch for candidates, but neither player has shown enough to suggest that it would be an easy transition. Hageman offers the size and strength one looks for in a nose tackle, but that role is considerably different from the role he’s asked to play at under tackle. The nose tackle is asked to maintain two gaps and eat space, while the under tackle is looking to attack more upfield. It remains to be seen if Hageman could be effective in the former role especially given his youth and overall rawness.

Despite a solid reputation as a run-defender, I can’t recall the last time Goodman played the run particularly well in a Falcons game, whether this summer or dating back to 2014. Goodman looked most effective this summer when he kicked inside in the nickel sub-package, playing a role similar to Clayborn. Asking him to stuff the run at Jackson’s end spot seems at least like plugging a oval peg in a round hole if not a fully square piece.

Joey Mbu’s presence on the practice squad gives the team an emergency option, but Mbu’s play this summer didn’t suggest that he’s ready to garner serious snaps against starting-caliber blockers just yet. So if the Falcons do have to deal with injuries to Jackson and Soliai, they’ll likely be forced to look outside of Atlanta for potential options.

On the pass-rush front, the team’s four best pass-rushers are already playing in their nickel sub-package and there’s a steep drop-off to the next option. Certainly Goodman and Jarrett flashed pass-rush ability this summer from the interior, but not enough to think that they are going to create nearly as much heat as Babineaux or Clayborn could in the same role. Hageman still has a long ways to go as a pass-rusher despite the occasional flash of upside.

On the edge, Maponga would have been a decent option should Beasley or Schofield get nicked up, but for the time being, Kroy Biermann appears to be their only reserve there. Biermann’s limitations as a pass-rusher are well known in Atlanta, so there’s not a lot of confidence in the depth.

But all of this concern over depth is probably more than nature of the beast than a particular issue that Quinn is capable of solving this year. It’s a direct result of the team’s inability to draft effective pass-rushers on the back end of their roster. This is a problem that is much likely to get fixed in March and April rather than September.

Linebacker

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Kroy Biermann

The injury that is expected to sideline Brooks Reed for much of the first half of the season is deeply concerning. While Reed is by no means an All-Pro, he might as well have been for the Falcons given the lack of strong options behind him. The Falcons appear poised to start Schofield at strong-side linebacker in Reed’s stead. Schofield did alright on the handful of reps he got at linebacker this summer, but the sample size was far too limited to lean one way or the other on how effective he’ll be.

The team’s only other alternative appears to be Biermann, who started for Reed in both preseason games when Reed was out with injury. While Biermann has enough versatility to be a functional linebacker, Quinn’s scheme asks its linebackers to play a lot more in space than Biermann has traditionally done. And since suffering the torn Achilles tendon in 2013, Biermann simply hasn’t been all that effective when asked to move and place in space. He’s much more at home closer to the line of scrimmage. This is an adjustment the Falcons might have to make, but the scheme often requires the strong-side linebacker to line up in the slot against wide receivers. Biermann won’t be asked to cover wide receivers one-on-one, but he’ll still be asked to make plays in the flat zone he’ll often be asked to cover, and again I cannot stress how lackluster Biermann has been when put in space.

Tyler Starr showed promise this summer, but he too seemed to react a step slow when asked to play in space and the suggestion that he is currently a better option there is built mostly out of animosity towards Biermann rather than truth. There’s certainly the potential that Starr surpasses Biermann eventually, but it’s unlikely to be in the next six weeks.

This is likely an area of the roster that is worth monitoring since if opposing teams can exploit a weakness in the Falcons’ zone, it could prove disastrous for the defense.

Nate Stupar was a player on the bubble that stuck likely due to his versatility to play both middle and weak-side linebacker as well as his prowess on special teams. Given the loss of Antone Smith, the Falcons probably couldn’t afford to lose two of their top three cover guys from 2014 in one fell swoop.

Cornerback

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Dezmen Southward

It was certainly a surprise that Dezmen Southward made the roster given that he did little to earn it. By the end of camp he was seventh on the depth chart behind the likes of Kevin White and Travis Howard, but somehow manage to wind up fifth after cuts were made. Justifying Southward’s leap were the facts that Howard suffered a season-ending injury and White’s short stature suggested that his long-term future on a defense specializing in press coverage might be limited.

But in reality, Southward stuck because he’s a third-round pick and the Falcons were attempted to save face by not cutting bait with such a premium pick so early in his career. The simple truth is that NFL teams don’t give up on high picks that easily, affording them multiple opportunities to showcase their mediocrity as Falcons fans are well-versed in the prolonged careers of Jamaal Anderson, Peter Konz and Peria Jerry and to a lesser extent Mike Johnson, Harry Douglas and Sam Baker, who all seemed to get a litany of opportunities to underwhelm.

Had the Falcons parted ways with Southward, he would have joined only three top 100 draft picks from 2014 that are no longer with the team that drafted them.

But the Falcons (and some of their fans) will insist that Southward possesses genuine upside to be more than just an average special teams player, much like they did once upon a time with wide receiver Drew Davis. But at least in Davis’ case, he would occasionally make a contribution on offense to at least quasi-justify his continued presence on the roster. It’s doubtful that as the fifth cornerback this year, Southward will share the same value.

Safety

The backup free safety position was the big concern at this spot with Robenson Therezie winning the job without any real competition. Unfortunately the Falcons never really had a bevy of free-safety options to choose from. Therezie might be a more natural fit at strong safety given his less than ideal range and instincts. He showed improvement as the summer wore on to consider some developmental upside, but one imagines that there’s a very high probability that next offseason free safety will be a position addressed. Whether that is a starter or backup will depend on the play of Therezie and starter Ricardo Allen in 2015.

Charles Godfrey, Sean Baker and Kemal Ishmael all played their best when put in the box at strong safety rather than when they were asked to play centerfield. Godfrey can serve as an alternative behind starting free safety Allen in a pinch, but his penchant for blowing coverage assignments this summer certainly instills very little confidence that he’ll be able to handle the role any better than the unproven Therezie.

Right now the Falcons are in a much better position at strong safety behind starter William Moore, with Ishmael performing well when he was out this summer with a calf injury. Ishmael still isn’t on Moore’s level in terms of awareness and range, two important skills when you play in a scheme that utilizes as much zone coverage as Quinn’s defense does. Ishmael looks like a natural fit in the scheme and hopefully at least in the awareness department, he can continue to grow and improve.

Conclusion

The overriding concern about the Falcons roster is their lack of depth. They’ve made strides to improve that along the offensive line, but have stood pat at a number of other positions that certainly could use more help. But lest we forget, this is a transition year under Quinn, indicating that it all is just a work in progress and nothing definitive can be gleaned just quite yet. There’s a certainty that the 53 players that currently reside on the Atlanta Falcons’ roster won’t be the exact same group that finishes the certain.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com