This is an unusually good, complete Falcons team, one that figures to have 18-20 starters settled going into the year. That means the usual spate of roster battles will be much more limited, and the summer thus will be more about the players hoping to hold on to backup roles and roster spots.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t positions of intrigue or battles to settle. Here’s a look at four of them that we can safely discuss before the draft comes along and further clarifies the roster picture.
Hugh Thornton vs. Wes Schweitzer
This could be a starting right guard job battle if the Falcons don’t address the position in the draft, which catapults it to the top of the list. The other important consideration here is that the Falcons may not keep both of these players if they pick up a starter, not with a swing tackle still needed, versatile interior lineman Ben Garland lurking, and a pretty durable set of starters at the other four spots.
In one corner, you have last year’s sixth round pick in Schweitzer, a mobile guard who played pretty well over last summer while battling Chris Chester for the right guard gig. Chester won it and went on to play all 19 games at a pretty high level, so I’m not sad about that outcome, but that probably wasn’t Schweitzer’s last crack at a gig.
In the other corner you have Thornton, an experienced guard with an injury history. The Falcons just picked him up from a barebones guard market to at least duke it out for a reserve role, and while Thornton has been no one’s idea of a great guard during his four seasons in the NFL, he has experience. Maybe he’ll surprise.
Ultimately, I still expect a guard to be selected in the first three rounds, but I’m bullish on Schweitzer’s outlook in particular. If the Falcons are only going to keep one of him and Thornton, it’s fairly obvious it will be him, so Thornton needs to have one hell of a camp to hang on to a spot.
Justin Hardy vs. Andre Roberts
This is the first time you’ll see Roberts’ name on this list, but not the last. The Falcons have their three top receivers sewn up, with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel figuring to be productive, frequently-targeted options.
The fourth receiver role is more up in the air. Justin Hardy did some nice things last year and is an effective blocker, while the recently-signed Roberts has a long history of being a useful option on shorter routes. Both should make this roster, but I don’t think Hardy is a lock to be the fourth receiver, even if that’s in name only.
C.J. Goodwin vs. Deji Olatoye vs. Akeem King
If Brian Poole does make the move to safety, there should be a couple of openings on the cornerback depth chart for these three men. Otherwise, there may be only one opening, though the Falcons love their cornerbacks.
In that scenario, it could come down to three big cornerbacks. Goodwin was impressive last year, particularly for a player making the transition from wide receiver to cornerback, and would be the odds-on favorite to win the role. He should be the team’s fourth corner if Poole is shifting over, and I’ll go ahead and put a shiny nickel on that outcome right now.
Olatoye did well in limited looks last year once he joined the roster, too, and King has the kind of size and physicality Dan Quinn covets, even if he hasn’t done much to this point. It should be interesting to see how the depth chart shakes out here, but Goodwin’s your favorite.
Devin Fuller vs. Andre Roberts
Fuller looked very good last spring and summer, surprising a bit as a receiving option and figuring to be in the mix for the team’s returner gigs. An injury ended all that, and a year later, his roster situation is much more precarious.
That’s chiefly because the team signed Roberts, who in addition to his solid work as a wide receiver just so happens to be a pretty effective returner. The Falcons didn’t pay Roberts a decent chunk of change to sit on the bench and cheer Fuller on, so Fuller’s really going to have to impress to stick around. I’m rooting for him—young and cheap should rule the day when you’re talking about special teamers—but I’m dubious.
It’s possible that Fuller will excel this summer and force the Falcons to make a tough decision, but he’ll have an uphill battle to a returner gig, which means he’ll also have an uphill battle to a roster spot.