It would be unfair to say the Falcons' new practice squad doesn't have any surprises. It would also be unfair to say they will be carrying a single player that wasn't on the roster this pre-season.
The final list neatly pairs potential with positional needs, but it's the omissions that are likely to draw the most attention, at least initially. No Ryan Wolfe, the promising UNLV receiver. No cornerbacks, a position where the Falcons have traditionally hedged against shaky depth. No Keith Zinger, blocking tight end extraordinaire.
Well, take a look for yourself:
The Atlanta Falcons today established an eight-player practice squad consisting of tight end Robbie Agnone, wide receiver
Tim Buckley, running back Dimitri Nance, wide receiver Andy Strickland, tackle Jose Valdez, safety Rafael Bush, defensive end Emmanuel Stephens and linebacker Bear Woods.
What strikes me about this list is the extent to which the Falcons are rolling the dice on potential. I don't think anyone believes that Tim Buckley and Andy Strickland are more ready for the NFL game than Ryan Wolfe, but the team clearly sees a level of potential they didn't think the more polished Wolfe had. Robbie Agnone is on the practice squad because he's a more well-rounded player than Keith Zinger, though he's clearly not ready to sniff the active roster. Jose Valdez is just a big dude who needs to learn how to be an NFL tackle.
I don't know if it says the Falcons have arrived on the NFL scene, but they're certainly thinking talent here in year three of the quote-unquote "rebuilding phase." They're also thinking they should only go for guys they already saw in the pre-season, but that's a topic for another day. Still not thrilled about the lack of Dezmon Briscoe.
For capsules on each player, follow me after the jump.
TE Robbie Agnone: A moderately successful Delaware tight end who played with Joe Flacco, Agnone caught a few passes at the college level and bounced around the league in 2009. He's a big guy (6'6") with soft hands and the frame to block. He's also not even close to ready to contribute at the NFL level, so the Falcons will bank on a year on the practice squad providing him the experience to make a run at the roster in 2011. If Justin Peelle, Tony Gonzalez or both decide to move on, Agnone may have a shot. Otherwise, he's depth in case Michael Palmer gets hurt or fizzles out.
WR Tim Buckley: At 6'1 and 185 pounds, Buckley's got the ability to fill out, but the Falcons may not want him too. He's quick and the team gave him a couple of shots to flash his agility in the return game, though he didn't captialize. His long-term upside is as a decent reserve receiver and a special teams ace, which is plenty to justify his spot on the practice squad. Obviously he's going to get criticized for not being Ryan Wolfe or Troy Bergeron, and that's perfectly justified. But he's got potential and he's reasonably versatile, so he may be next in line if Eric Weems falters this season.
I still don't fully understand keeping him, but let's give him a shot.
RB Dmitri Nance: A no-brainer for the practice squad. At times, when he was punching in two touchdowns or breaking a 30 yard run called back by penalty, Nance looked like a bruiser with a second gear. The Rushin' Russian is a worthwhile gamble based on that limited slice of playing time alone, and he'll be on speed dial should the Falcons suffer an injury anywhere on the depth chart.
WR Andy Strickland: This is a classic low-risk, high-upside pick. Strickland looked good against backups when the Falcons played the Jaguars, a mix of speed, instincts and reasonable size that might have put him on a few teams' radars if he hadn't played for Wofford. I'm not even sure what that is.
That said, Strickland is from a small school and was playing against third-stringers, so it's not like he's ready to jump in and contribute. The Falcons saw something there that made them think he might be an intriguing prospect. I still don't quite understand how he's a better bet than Ryan Wolfe or Troy Bergeron, since both of those guys would seem more capable of helping out this year, but there you go.
T/G Jose Valdez: Ah, Jose Valdez. He's a big dude and an effective college player who intrigued the Falcons with his pure physical talent this pre-season. He'll need a couple coats of paint, so to the practice squad he goes. It won't surprise me if he knocks Will Svitek off the roster by next season.
S Rafael Bush: This was one of the least surprising additions to the practice squad. Bush looked sharp all pre-season, showing he can hit when called upon and flashing at least average coverage skills. Erik Coleman won't be around forever, so the Falcons will see if they can turn Bush into competition/a backup for William Moore down the line. His skills definitely fit the mold of a strong safety, in my mind.
DE Emmanuel Stephens: This is a confusing one. The Falcons are quite deep at defensive end, but I suppose you can never have too many. I try to follow the Falcons as closely as possible to zero in on lesser-known players, but even I couldn't tell you a whole hell of a lot about Emmanuel Stephens. Playing at the community college level at Blinn, he posted 20.5 sacks, but that doesn't tell us a whole lot about his ability. He managed 6.5 sacks and a few dozen tackles in two years at Mississippi.
This smacks of the Falcons looking for a diamond in the rough. Again, Jamaal Anderson, Chauncey Davis and John Abraham won't be in Atlanta forever, so they have to fill those spots eventually. If Stephens can improve, he might just be enough of a player to stick as a reserve for the Falcons. Still an interesting use of a spot.
LB Bear Woods: Like I need to tell you about the guy with snakes in his hair. Woods looks to be a natural leader, a nasty hitter and a guy who can put pressure on the quarterback when called upon. Yeah, he's a reserve and he'll need to develop, but it's not a stretch to say he could make a splash on the roster by the end of the season, particularly if Mike Peterson continues his rapid descent into old age.