Roster Talk: Five Falcons on the Bubble

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Darius Johnson

After examining the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons roster, that still leaves 50 players that did not get such in-depth looks. Most of those top 40 players will wind up making the Falcons 53-man roster this year, leaving little more than a dozen roster spots for the remaining 50.

Let’s examine several of the players “on the bubble” that may struggle to make the cut. All five of the following players have been counted among contributors in the past, but may not be any longer. In examining each, I’ll break down what exactly are their best avenues of making the team.

Darius Johnson, Wide Receiver

Johnson played well last year considering he was an undrafted rookie, leapfrogging both Drew Davis and Kevin Cone on the depth chart, two third-year veterans. But that won’t earn him lingering credit if he doesn’t perform up to task this summer.

He’ll face steady competition from a group of young, explosive receivers like Bernard Reedy. What hurts Johnson is that he won’t be able to help himself much on special teams. Given his smaller stature, he’s not shown that he’s very effective when asked to cover punts and kicks.

Thus, Johnson needs to perform well enough on offense to stick. And hurting him may be the fact that unlike 2013, he won’t be getting that much work with Ryan. He may receive lesser quarterback play from the backups during preseason games and have a harder time distinguishing himself from the rest of the group.

A major issue that will affect Johnson will be how comfortable the Falcons are with Devin Hester on offense. Given the Falcons are going to play more three-wide receiver sets this year, they will need at least one capable backup in case of injury. If the Falcons feel comfortable with Hester in that role, then it Johnson becomes a bit more expendable. However, Johnson’s best bet is to showcase that offensive capability and make the coaches believe that he become a better version of Harry Douglas down the road. Johnson is five years younger than Douglas, so there’s one obvious reason why the coaches could be intrigued by his potential. But that has to come forth on the field this summer.

Sean Renfree, Quarterback

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Sean Renfree

The rumors are that the Falcons will opt to only keep two quarterbacks on their roster. And given the June trade for T.J. Yates, that player doesn’t appear to be Renfree. But clearly, the Falcons saw something worthwhile in Renfree last season when they opted to use a seventh-round pick on him.

For Renfree, his one advantage is that he has a better grasp of the Falcons offense than either Yates or undrafted rookie Jeff Mathews. Hurting Renfree is the fact that just judging off his preseason play last summer, he didn’t play well enough to merit a roster spot. Granted, none of the Falcons backup quarterbacks played well enough to earn a spot, but Renfree can’t let history repeat itself this summer. His best hope is that by the time the fourth preseason game rolls around, the Falcons have yet to make a decision on who Matt Ryan’s backup will be. That will be Renfree’s final opportunity to really cement his status and win the job.

While Mathews has the strongest arm of the group, Renfree’s arm is potentially stronger than that of Yates. Renfree did not show any hesitancy last summer when asked to throw down the field during the preseason. And continuing that may be his best avenue this summer in order to stick. If he can make some money throws down the field, an area where Yates has rarely shined in, that could be enough to at least give him the opportunity going into the final preseason game.

And then if Renfree manages to perform well enough, it might make the team question its decision to keep only two quarterbacks. One thing working in Renfree’s favor is that he still remains eligible for the practice squad.

Harland Gunn, Guard

I said so at the end of last season, but Gunn outplayed Peter Konz over the final three games in which the two platooned at right guard. Yet, Konz appears in little danger of losing his roster spot this year. Unlike Gunn, who is on the outside looking in thanks to the healthy return of Mike Johnson and the addition of Gabe Carimi. Gunn will be competing with former first (Carimi), second (Konz) and third-round (Johnson) picks. And regardless of whether any of them have lived up to their respective billings, they were selected that high because they have certain physical traits that coaches and scouts tend to really like.

Gunn lacks those guys’ size and natural, physical capabilities. He makes up for with aggression and toughness, which is something else that can certainly catch the eye of coaches. Gunn will need to do exactly that this summer with new position coaches Mike Tice and Wade Harman taking over for Pat Hill.

Helping Gunn is his versatility, as he’s taken snaps at center in the past. That may wind up being his more natural position given his lacking the ideal size to play guard.

But in reality, even if all those things work for Gunn, he’ll still be hard-pressed to make the roster. And frankly, may need someone like Konz or Johnson to get injured to really grant him the opportunity necessary to stick. His best hope may be that he still should retain some practice squad eligibility.

Stansly Maponga, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker

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Stansly Maponga

Maponga looks slated to back up Osi Umenyiora as the team’s designated pass-rusher or “DPR.”. That is basically the guy that comes onto the field in sub-packages and his one role will be getting after the quarterback.

And that’s exactly how Maponga will make the roster: by getting to opposing quarterbacks. He won’t have the ability to do that much in practice, but needs to shine in preseason games against those second and third-string blockers.

Maponga didn’t have a great preseason last summer, partly because he missed all of the offseason recovering from a foot injury. When he finally got back, hw looked a bit sluggish and lacked burst during the preseason. He won’t have that excuse this year, so he needs to showcase that same burst off the edge that prompted the Falcons to move up in the fifth round to select him in 2013.

Teams don’t cut good pass rushers since it’s a premium position. Whether Maponga shines in coverage, run support or on special teams is largely irrelevant. It’s almost entirely about his ability to put heat on the quarterback this summer. If he does, then he should stick. If he doesn’t, then that could spell trouble.

Cliff Matthews, Defensive End/Tackle

Matthews has been buried by all the additions the Falcons made up front this offseason. With players like Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai and Ra’Shede Hageman, coupled with the returns of Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters, Matthews will be hard-pressed to earn a spot.

Matthews came to Atlanta in 2011 as an undersized, but high-motor edge-rusher. That motor and effort helped him carve out a role in 2012 on special teams and as a run defender in the mold of ex-Falcon defensive end Chauncey Davis. But last year, the coaching staff wanted him to bulk up so they could play him inside in three-man fronts. He got stronger but it didn’t translate onto the field. Playing more as a defensive tackle, he had a tendency to get pushed around by opposing guards. As a player that spent the entirety of his college career playing on the edge, playing in the confined quarters inside proved to be a major challenge for Matthews. Subsequently, his reps and contributions on defense were minimal last season. He did however managed to contribute on special teams, but even then the added bulk seemed to slow him down and prevent him from making plays. Matthews had three special teams tackles in 2012, but none in 2013.

This summer, Matthews is going to have to show that he’s more comfortable with the extra bulk. His ability to play special teams won’t be nearly as valuable as it was in the past given the multitude of linebackers the Falcons drafted this past May. Matthews’ motor is one asset, but it needs to translate into making more plays.

Helping Matthews is the possibility that Peters might miss most or all of camp in his recovery from injury. Also, players like Babineaux, Soliai and Jackson probably won’t get a ton of reps in preseason since they don’t really have much to prove. That should open up more opportunities for Matthews to get extensive reps, and he’ll simply have to make more plays. His main competition will likely be Peria Jerry, and Matthews may benefit from the fact that he’s a slightly cheaper option than Jerry. But Jerry is also on the bubble, so even if Matthews outplays him it doesn’t guarantee he’ll stick.

These are just five players that are on the bubble. Which players do you feel could also be hard-pressed to earn a roster spot with the Falcons this summer? Let me know in the comments.

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Aaron Freeman
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