I want to go position by position and discuss which players I believe will make the Falcons final 53-man roster come Friday. For this first part I want to look at the offensive players. Later I will discuss defensive battles.
Typically an NFL roster is going to consist of 25 offensive players, 25 defensive players, and 3 special teams players. Those numbers can be tweaked by 1 or 2 players often given how injuries effect you at that point in the year and other places where you have strong depth.
For example, the past few years the Falcons have kept five defensive tackles on the roster mainly because they’ve had injuries and other issues hit them during the summer. In 2010, Jonathan Babineaux was suspended for the season opener, prompting them to go into the season with a fifth tackle in Trey Lewis. Last year, Corey Peters missed the season opener against the Bears with a knee injury, thus allowing Carlton Powell a chance to make the roster as the fifth defensive tackle. Normally, the Falcons would only keep four defensive tackles as they did in 2008 and 2009, but injuries prompted them otherwise in 2010 and 2011.
Situations like that can affect a player or two making the roster or not as the team is trying its damnedest to get 46 players healthy and active for the first Sunday of the year.
The big question going into this week was whether or not the Falcons would choose to keep two quarterbacks or three, and whether Chris Redman would be among them. Earlier today, the Falcons seemingly answered that question by dumping Redman and replacing him with veteran Luke McCown. It was a move that I thought possible, but not probable. Well, I was wrong. But even with this late addition of McCown, he’s not guaranteed to be on the final 53 on opening day. McCown’s relatively hefty veteran salary of $825,000 would be guaranteed if he is on the roster for Week 1, as are those of any of the other 52 players. The Falcons could cut him prior to the start of the season with the expectation and understanding that they would bring him back in Week 2. Such a money manipulation is not foreign to the Falcons, as they pulled this with Brett Romberg a year ago who also signed a mere 48 hours before their final preseason game as well. McCown could get some reps in the preseason finale, although it’s doubtful given the limited amount of work he’d have to prep for it. Instead, Dominique Davis will likely play the entire game. And if he has another strong performance, then it increases the chances that the team opens the season with him as the No. 2 QB, and subsequently pulls the opening day switcheroo with McCown. If Davis struggles, then McCown will almost certainly get the nine days between the Jaguars game and the season opener to take the No. 2 job.
Best Guess for Final 53: Ryan, Davis, McCown.
The major question here is who will be the team’s fullback? The team seems likely to keep four tailbacks and a fullback as they did at the start of 2011. The four tailbacks seem fairly set in stone although Dimitri Nance probably begs to differ. He’ll need a strong preseason finale against Jacksonville to unseat Antone Smith for the job. Smith has quietly had a strong summer, and can rest on the fact that he’s one of the team’s best gunners on punt coverage. Nance hasn’t made a lot happen on special teams thus far, and I would not expect him to start now. But it’s not a foreign concept to him, and it’s possible that he could have such a good game rushing that he could leapfrog Smith on his offensive potential alone. But as mentioned earlier, the bigger issue is the fullback competition. Mike Cox continues to get the first team reps, but we also saw Lousaka Polite steal some against Miami last week. Polite has shown a more physical disposition to his blocking, but Cox is still quietly competent. Polite’s chances of making the team may not be evident with his on-field play, but more so based around whether the team feels like he’s gotten up to speed with the playbook over the past three weeks. That isn’t really a question with Cox who has been with this team since last October. It’s possible the team could look at other available options on the waiver wire if anybody noteworthy becomes available, but it’s probably unnecessary. Personally, I’m pulling for Polite to win the job, but three weeks of work is a steep hill to climb and at this point probably gives Cox the slight edge. But both players will have one last chance to duke it out against the Jaguars Thursday night.
Best Guess for Final 53: Turner, Rodgers, Snelling, Smith, and Cox.
The Falcons almost always keep five receivers, but this year I question that somewhat because I don’t believe anybody has really stepped up to fill that fifth spot this summer. Between Kevin Cone, D.J. Davis, Marcus Jackson, James Rodgers, and Tim Toone, the hope was that competition would allow the cream to rise to the top. I’m not sure it has, at least not in an obvious way. That’s why this final preseason game is going to be very important for all five players. Cone probably has the best offensive potential, but I’ve also been impressed with Jackson at times. Rodgers and Toone have showcased abilities in the return game, but not nearly to a degree where they are strong candidates to win a job because of it. Davis has had his moments in special teams coverage, the only one of the group. The fifth receiver plays almost exclusively on special teams and the team will need his coverage abilities. It’s why if I was to place a bet today, I would pick Davis over the rest. My second choice, would probably be Toone, with Cone winning the bronze. Cone had a concussion a week ago, and whether he’s 100% recovered from that will also affect his roster status. Everybody else I think is more likely to make the practice squad than the final roster. I know for a fact that Cone, Davis, Jackson, and Rodgers are all eligible for the practice squad, but Toone is not because he’s spent two previous years on other teams’ 8-man units. But there is an exception for a third year as the Falcons took advantage of a year ago with Jose Valdez and Robert James, and it’s possible the same could be applied to Toone this year. The past few years the Falcons have often kept a pair of receivers on the practice squad, and I suspect due to the close competition that could also be the case again in 2012.
Best Guess for Final 53: White, Jones, Douglas, Meier, Davis
Practice Squad: Cone, Jackson, and/or Rodgers
The Falcons are supposed to keep three tight ends, but similar to the wide receiver position, I’m not sure if a third guy has emerged from the pack to merit it. LaMark Brown and Tommy Gallarda have each had their moments this summer, but I’m not sure enough of them for the team to keep them on the 53-man roster. Brown is an athletic H-back that offers potential in the passing game. But last I checked the Falcons don’t really use a flex tight end which is the ideal role for Brown. I think that means he is headed for the practice squad instead. Palmer is a solid H-back, and unless you’re really going to be making ample use of H-backs in your offense (which the Falcons have yet to show any indication they will), then you don’t really need two. Gallarda is more of the inline “Y” tight end that I believe the Falcons prefer for the third spot. But Gallarda is limited in the passing game, and I’m not sure compensates fully with his blocking. This is why I think the Falcons could be looking for a veteran player this weekend. Both Brown and Gallarda can change their minds with good games against Jacksonville. The fact that Garrett Reynolds was utilized in the old Will Svitek role as the third tackle/blocking tight end against Miami doesn’t particularly bode well for either player.
Best Guess for Final 53: Gonzalez, Palmer, and a Player TBD
Practice Squad: Brown or Gallarda
The Falcons have consistently kept at least nine blockers up front over the years. The seven active on gameday are the five starters and a swing tackle and swing guard/center. If Baker and Reynolds retain their starting positions, then rookies Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz will likely fill those roles, respectively. I think Konz has a better chance of leapfrogging Reynolds at this point than Holmes over Baker, and if that was to happen then Hawley would serve as the swing guard/center as he has for much of the past two seasons. I think the big question is who are the other two players that the Falcons will keep. I believe Hawley is the front-runner for one of those spots. The other one probably comes down to either Andrew Jackson or Mike Johnson. It’s certainly possible the team opts to keep both, but far from a given. Both remain eligible for the practice squad. But Johnson’s former status as a third round pick probably makes it harder for him to sneak through waivers to make it there. When you’re drafted that high, it typically means other teams will start to dust off those old scouting reports and someone will bite. Not to mention, Johnson’s extensive work at right tackle probably has only increased his value to the other 31 NFL teams because of added versatility. That’s not to suggest that Jackson is automatically going to clear waivers either. His draft stock fell mostly because of durability concerns, not lack of ability. At this point if I had to choose only one of them, I would probably give Jackson the nod. Mainly because with Holmes likely set as the swing tackle, it makes Johnson a bit more expendable, and Jackson’s ability to play both guard spots (something he’s done this preseason) makes him slightly more valuable. Not to mention the Pat Hill connection, where Hill’s appraisal of Jackson’s skills, toughness, and smarts was the primary reason which prompted the Falcons to take a flyer on him in the seventh round a year ago. Hill said Jackson was the best blocker since Logan Mankins that he coached. Unless he was blowing smoke up Dimitroff’s patootie, then I would think that might give him the edge. As for Bryce Harris, Tyler Horn, and Phillip Manley, I think they are all playing for a practice squad spot. I think Harris (another Fresno State alum/Hill protege) and Manley have the edge in that race over Horn. Even with a good performance Thursday by Horn, if Hawley makes the team, that would mean the team has four centers, which seems extravagant especially when all are healthy. Ultimately, the battle between Johnson and Jackson could determine which of the two: Harris or Manley make it. If Johnson makes the roster, then it increases Manley’s chances. If Jackson does, then Harris likely gets the nod.
Best Guess for Final 53: Baker, Blalock, McClure, Reynolds, Clabo, Holmes, Hawley, Konz, Jackson
Practice Squad: Harris and/or Manley
Soon, I’ll be discussing some of the defensive battles that remain and how it could shape the final roster.