Three Key Position Battles to Watch Tonight vs. Jaguars

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Darius Johnson is poised to make a bid for the roster tonight

While the majority of the Falcons roster is fairly settled, there remain some roster spots open. And many of them come at a few key positions, where a clear-cut winner has yet to emerge. Here are three key position battles where the player who has the best performance tonight against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Falcons preseason finale could emerge the winner, while the loser seeks employment elsewhere.

Fifth Wide Receiver: Darius Johnson vs. Kevin Cone

The Falcons top four wideouts appear locked in with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, and Drew Davis atop the depth chart. The Falcons have traditionally kept five wide receivers over the years, with the fourth and fifth players primarily playing special teams.

That helps Kevin Cone, who has been effective working on punt and kickoff coverage dating back to 2012. But Cone has been disappointing thus far on offense. That’s where Darius Johnson has shined. Johnson is the opposite of Cone, in that he’s small, but very quick and explosive. He has been highly productive working with the second and third team offenses. While Cone has made some contributions there, they have been too few and far between. While Cone’s hands have shown improvement from a year ago, he has struggled to separate from coverage.

Johnson did get reps as a return man during his days at SMU, and his speed and quickness could potentially be an asset there in the event that Harry Douglas or Jacquizz Rodgers go down with injuries. But his smaller size remains an obstacle when it comes to coverage on special teams. It didn’t stop a player like Eric Weems from excelling over the years in Atlanta in that realm, but Johnson is a ways from proving himself to be another Weems.

How this final game plays out will determine who wins the job. Cone’s a much more proven commodity as far as special teams goes, while Johnson seems to possess greater offensive potential. The Falcons will ultimately have to decide which they value more. But in both players’ cases, it will help if Cone has a good night on offense, and/or Johnson can make a few plays on special teams. What helps Cone in his bid for a roster spot is that he isn’t eligible for the practice squad, while Johnson is. The Falcons would then have to decide whether they want to risk exposing Johnson to waivers. It would be iffy at best if Johnson cleared them, considering he is currently ranked tied for third in the league in receptions going into the final preseason game. That is likely to catch some receiver-needy team looking for a quick, slot-type to develop.

Another factor that could be in play might be the questionable health of Roddy White. While White is expected to suit up for the Falcons Week 1, if there are any setbacks with his recovery from an ankle injury between now and then, the Falcons could be tempted to carry six receivers on the roster for the opening week as insurance. That could ensure that both players wind up being kept.

Backup Guard: Jacques McClendon vs. Phillipkeith Manley vs. Harland Gunn

All three players are entering their second seasons with the Falcons, having each spent time on the team’s practice squad a year ago. From my own eyes, McClendon has been the most impressive of the group although the bulk of his snaps have come as the team’s third-string center. But last week against the Titans, he did split reps with Manley as the second-unit left guard. That would seemingly indicate that Manley might be trailing among the trio. McClendon has good size, strength, has shown his versatility and has been the most consistent run blocker of the group. Gunn isn’t overly powerful, but has shown good mobility and athleticism when asked to block on the move. He too has experience playing center, indicating versatility. Manley is massive, but hasn’t quite translate that into being a consistent blocker. But the team did briefly work him at tackle during training camp, suggesting versatility as well.

How the Falcons divide up snaps tonight against the Jaguars could be a strong indicator of which player they are leaning towards. All are likely competing for only one spot on the roster, as the team appears likely to carry only three guards on their final roster. Helping each is that all three remain eligible for the practice squad again in 2013. So even if they don’t land a final roster spot, they could still be kept if they can manage to clear waivers.

Backup Safety: Charles Mitchell vs. Shann Schillinger vs. Zeke Motta vs. Kemal Ishmael

Unlike the other battles highlighted above, the battle for reserve safety spots won’t be a zero sum game. In fact, at least two if not three spots remain available for the four aforementioned safeties. I suspect the Falcons will opt to keep three when all is said and done but there has not been a clear-cut winner thus far through three preseason games. Thus it will be important for at least one or two of these guys to emerge tonight against Jacksonville.

Depth at safety is a concern given the durability issues that William Moore has faced in each of the past two seasons. In fact, Moore has missed significant time (at least four games) in three of his four seasons playing in Atlanta. It makes having quality depth at the safety position a bit of a priority. It was why the Falcons added Chris Hope last June due to their lack of faith in players like Mitchell and Schillinger at the time. The team let Hope walk this off-season and opted to bring in a pair of rookies in Motta and Ishmael to bolster competition.

The team has given all four guys a relatively equal mix of playing time through the first three preseason games. According to Pro Football Focus, Mitchell has the slight lead with 60 snaps on defense, followed by Schillinger (59), Ishmael (55), and Motta (54). But again, those snap counts are so close that it would be foolish to try and draw significant conclusions from them. The Falcons have shuffled their depth chart a few times to see if anyone emerges, and thus far no one has.

Mitchell probably possesses the most defensive upside of the group. His SEC pedigree and solid play last summer in the preseason help him in that regard. But hurting him is the fact that he’s probably the weakest of the group when it comes to special teams. In ten appearances last year, he garnered only a single special teams tackle. That pales in comparison to a player like Schillinger, who had 8 stops in his rookie season. In fact, Schillinger’s 19 stops in 31 games played with the Falcons is his best bid for making the final roster. While Motta and Ishmael have both played well on special teams coverage this summer, Schillinger is their most proven candidate. And his absence via injury was one of several factors that led to declining production from the Falcons punt coverage in 2012.

Helping both veterans potentially is the fact that both rookies are eligible for the practice squad, while Mitchell and Schillinger are not. The Falcons could decide to keep both players, plus one of the rookies, and then risk waivers to place the other rookie on the practice squad. That is the only scenario in which all four players stick around.

One of things hurting all four players is their diminishing returns in coverage. Coverage is the key for carving out a role on regular defense due to the nature of modern pass-heavy NFL offenses. If any can manage to make a couple of plays tonight in coverage, it would go a long way to inspire confidence in the coaches that their depth is not an issue at the position. But in the end, someone needs to step up and distinguish himself from the pack in order to guarantee a bid for the roster. None have, and approaching the deadline, this spot remains wide open.

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Aaron Freeman
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