With the first round of cuts, PUP listings and waivings in the books, the Falcons turn their attention settling the roster's many position battles and deciding upon the next round of roster culling. All of this has to happen in less than a week and with only one preseason game and a few practices to go off of, so every spectacular moment and flub matters a great deal.
After combing through the players left, I've come up with a short list of key roster battles in the week ahead. Please note that none of these are for starting jobs, but purely for roster survival, which is why you'll see nothing but reserves all the way down. As always, share your battles to watch in the comments.
Sean Renfree vs. T.J. Yates
When the Falcons traded Akeem Dent for T.J. Yates, it seemed obvious he would be the team's backup in 2014. Maybe Sean Renfree or someone else would take over down the line, but the team was in the market for a trusty veteran backup and the writing was very much on the wall.
The problem with that tidy little narrative is that Renfree has significantly outplayed Yates throughout preseason. Yates is struggling to pick up the playbook and looks more than a little tentative in live game action, while Renfree has looked poised and accurate against backups and third-stringers alike. If preseason competition determined everything, there's little question Renfree would already have this job sewn up.
As it is, the Falcons will give Yates a chance to salvage the preseason and show an improved mastery of the playbook in the final preseason game. Keeping Yates means you can at least attempt to stash Renfree on the practice squad, giving you the established veteran backup and keeping the promising young quarterback around for the future. If Renfree is just clearly the better option—and it looks like he may be—that may not matter.
Bernard Reedy vs. Geraldo Boldewijn vs. Courtney Roby
With Eric Weems' triumphant return to the Falcons, Mickey Shuler's concussion and strong performances from Reedy and Boldewijn in particular, it's looking increasingly likely the Falcons will choose to hold on to six receivers to start the season. I'm anticipating Weems will be one of those, given his well-established special teams value. The other could be any of the three players listed above.
Reedy would be my pick, both because he has shown great wheels and good hands throughout training camp and the preseason and because he would seem to offer an alternative at returner should anything happen to Devin Hester. Boldewijn has impressed as a receiver, albeit against backups, and has the right combination of size, speed and blocking ability to appeal to this coaching staff. Right now, I have him landing on the practice squad.
Roby would be relatively indefensible because he offers nothing as a receiver and wouldn't seem to be so far ahead of Reedy and Boldewijn in special teams that he'd deserve to wrest a spot away, but I know better than to rule out the possibility. Look for all three of these guys to get some real run against the Jaguars.
Ryan Schraeder vs. Terren Jones
Lamar Holmes would seem to have an inside edge on the starting job, with Gabe Carimi serving as his primary competition. That leaves Ryan Schraeder and Terren Jones to duke it out for fourth tackle duties.
Schraeder likely has the leg up, given that the team has consistently given him opportunities with the backups that Jones isn't getting. Jones, of course, has a tremendous amount of size and strength, but remains a developmental guy in many ways. Unless the team gives handsome fellow Pat McQuistan the job for some reason that escapes all logic, this will come down to these two players, and Schraeder must be considered the favorite.
Harland Gunn vs. Peter Konz
There's a small but non-zero chance that Gunn becomes the primary backup not just at guard but at center, which would make Peter Konz close to expendable. It's doubtful Konz gets knocked off the roster entirely, but right now it appears Gunn is pushing hard to be the true backup at guard, and he's dabbled in center before. Konz needs a quality final game to remain the primary guy behind Joe Hawley, in my opinion.
It's worth noting that Justin Blalock won't be the starter at left guard forever, and if Gunn can continue his growth, there's an outside chance he'll be in the running for a more significant job down the line.
Stansly Maponga vs. Jacques Smith vs. Tyler Starr
Three men in the running for a backup outside linebacker/part-time defensive end gig, and one may have a shot at seeing close to starters' snaps, depending on how the team decides to align its personnel.
Again, Maponga is the favorite. He's come on strong the last couple of weeks, he was drafted as a pass rushing project and the team would love to see him step up and win a roster spot, if not challenge guys like Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora for snaps. The raw ability and work ethic have never been in question, so if he just continues to improve, Maponga should be in line for a much bigger role in 2014.
He'll be competing with Jacques Smith. The fiery rookie seems like a decent bet to make the roster and seems like someone who could give Maponga a run for his money if all things were equal, but his temper and the rookie learning curve could keep him from a major role right off the bat. He's been one of the most impressive UDFAs by a long shot, though, and the Falcons want to keep populating the linebacking corps with young, promising players.
Starr would appear to be the odd man out. He hasn't built on a strong June mini-camp and the team should be able to safely stash him away on the practice squad for a year while he develops, and he could be a useful piece in 2015 and beyond.
Josh Wilson vs. Javier Arenas
Both of these players could make it if the Falcons elect to keep six cornerbacks, but that's not yet a lock. With Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford running as the starters and Robert McClain pulling away, as many of us hoped he would, their primary competition for a roster spot would seem to be rookie Ricardo Allen. While he's not in line for a major rule this year, I'd be stunned if the team didn't keep Allen around, given his real promise.
That leaves Wilson and Arenas. Wilson has been the better cornerback over the life of his career, a couple of shaky years in Washington notwithstanding, and he had some standout moments in camp. In live game action, he's been less impressive, and he has significantly less special teams value than Arenas.
Both will get a chance to make a case in this fourth and final preseason game, but given Keith Armstrong's urgent need for quality special teamers, I imagine Arenas gets the nod if the team keeps five corners.