We are almost there folks. The dead zone is mercifully coming to an end in a little over a week. Then, training camp will be upon us, with actual meaningful things to talk about! It shall be glorious.
In the meantime, we still have a few more things to discuss before we jump into camp. One of those is discussing how the roster might shake out for the 2017 season. What better way to do that than by making entirely-too-early predictions for which players and UDFAs will impress enough to earn spots?
Without further adieu, here it is: my pre-camp roster projection. This has been the second projection I’ve made this offseason. If you’d like to see the first, you can find it here. Changes from my earlier projection have been denoted in italics.
OFFENSE - 24
QB - 2
No change here, as the Falcons have a (thankfully) very settled QB group heading into training camp. Ryan is the reigning MVP and coming off his best season. Schaub is a dependable veteran with plenty of NFL and scheme experience.
RB - 3
The RB group is a bit more interesting with the addition of rookie Brian Hill. Hill will battle Terron Ward for the third RB spot, but if both show out don’t be surprised if both make the roster. Freeman and Coleman comprise one of the best RB duos in the league. Freeman is the better pure runner, while Coleman is a deadly receiving option.
FB - 1
After the departure of Pro Bowl FB Patrick DiMarco, FB is now down to veteran Derrick Coleman and UDFA Tyler Renew. Renew is the more dynamic player and Coleman (although he has a great story) has never been more than a serviceable player throughout his career. I think the Falcons will be using FB more as a chess piece than as a pure blocker under Sarkisian, so I’m giving the edge to Renew here.
WR - 6
The Falcons have a stacked WR corps going into 2017 that is almost identical to the 2016 group. Julio, Sanu, and Gabriel are all established starters who have played well. Hardy, now in his third season, has started making a name for himself as a dependable possession receiver and red zone weapon. Roberts was signed over from Detroit to compete for the PR/KR role, and is a capable WR in his own right. Williams is simply a solid option in the slot who can be depended on for a few catches a game.
TE - 4
The TE group is very similar to last year, with 3 of 4 players returning. However, there’s a new #1 in town, as second-year player Austin Hooper is expected to take over the lead role in 2017. Toilolo is a very good blocker who can contribute a little in the receiving game. The recently-drafted Saubert is a dynamic receiving option who needs to refine his game and learn how to block at the NFL level, but could see work this season. Perkins stuck on the roster throughout 2016, and the staff clearly sees something in him. He’s a back-up who could eventually become something more.
OL - 8
LT Jake Matthews
LG Andy Levitre
C Alex Mack
RG Wes Schweitzer
RT Ryan Schraeder
C/G Ben Garland
G Sean Harlow
T Andreas Knappe
The Falcons have done a great job at bolstering the offensive line over the last two seasons. Four out of five starters are all above-average (or better), with the only question mark at right guard. I expect second-year player Wes Schweitzer to win the battle and play at an average level in 2017.
The depth on the interior is in good shape, with Ben Garland capable of playing C and G capably and rookie Sean Harlow learning the ropes. At tackle, the team is playing a very dangerous game. Expect the team to sign a veteran swing tackle option if one shakes loose during training camp, but for now, my vote goes to the massive UDFA Andreas Knappe. The team has had success in the past turning huge, raw OTs into starters (see: Ryan Schraeder).
DEFENSE - 26
EDGE - 3
The pure EDGE group is talented, but not especially deep. Vic Beasley is the NFL’s reigning sack leader, and the hope is that he can continue to become a more consistent player in year 3. Takkarist McKinley is a super athletic rookie who should work his way onto the field in nickel situations. Reed is a good jack-of-all-trades EDGE who will likely play on base downs and in relief situations.
DE/DT - 4
What the Falcons lack in pure EDGEs and DTs, they make up for in versatile inside/outside players. Clayborn is a solid #3 pass rusher who can make plays against the run on the outside. Crawford was one of the Falcons bigger FA additions this offseason, who is expected to bolster the rotation with good pass rushing ability. Shelby was signed last season and started to flash on the edge before going on IR. Upshaw is a solid, high-effort depth piece who can play all over the line.
DT - 3
This group, although thin, is loaded with potential. Grady Jarrett had his coming out party in the Super Bowl, where he sacked Tom Brady 3 times and generally laid waste to the Patriots offense throughout. Poe is the Falcons’ biggest FA addition, and should provide a big (wink wink) upgrade to the run defense by plugging up the middle. His athletic ability is off the charts, so don’t be surprised if he makes some plays against the pass too. Hageman is a bit of an enigma—he shows flashes of tremendous play but has struggled with consistency. This season will be his chance to earn a big contract.
LB - 5
Duke Riley Jr.
The LB corps has been upgraded this year with the addition of Duke Riley, but otherwise largely remains the same. Deion Jones returns to man the MLB spot, and should continue to improve on his impressive rookie campaign. Campbell is moving to SLB on base downs, but will still rotate in and play WLB in nickel at times. Riley is expected to win the WLB role in camp, and has a good chance to start there in base packages. Ishmael and Reynolds are both solid depth options who can step in and play decently if needed.
CB - 6
The CB group is arugably the deepest on the entire roster, due to some savvy undrafted contributors. Trufant is an elite CB1 who should pick up right where he left off before his injury. Alford stepped up in a big way in 2016 and proved that he can play like a CB1 at times, though he’ll be the CB2 for Atlanta. Collins was forced into action and showed flashes of his athletic potential—he’ll need to improve his consistency, but is my favorite for the CB3 (nickel) role. Poole is a capable slot CB who will be rotated in frequently depending on match-ups. Goodwin and Olatoye are both depth players who showed promise when called upon.
S - 5
FS Ricardo Allen
FS Damontae Kazee
FS Marcelis Branch
SS Keanu Neal
SS Sharrod Neasman
The Falcons have an interesting safety group that is absolutely loaded with young talent. Allen and Kazee will compete for the starting FS role, but Allen’s experience will likely lead to him keeping the job this season. Kazee is a ballhawk and physical tackler who will likely find his way onto the field in 3-safety sets and as a nickel CB. Branch is an intriguing UDFA who I believe sneaks onto the roster with an impressive preseason.
Keanu Neal returns as one of the best SS in the NFL. He’s a highlight-reel hitter who’s been remarkably good in coverage thus far. If he can improve his instincts and hands, he could be even better this year. Neasman was an UDFA from 2016 who impressed and made his way onto the active roster. He looked decent when on the field last season, but should be able to improve in his second year.
SPECIAL TEAMS - 3
K Matt Bryant
P Matt Bosher
LS Josh Harris
I feel like the Falcons have had the same special teams trio for ages, which is a good thing. Bryant, although he is approaching the end of his career, is an excellent kicker (and a really nice guy). Bosher is among the best punters in the league and is a fantastic tackler. Harris is a dependable LS who made a few plays in kick coverage last season—gotta love his effort.
PRACTICE SQUAD - 10
It’s pretty silly to try to pick the practice squad before seeing anyone in camp, but here’s my best guess based on the research I’ve done and the buzz from OTAs.
- QB Alek Torgersen - I like this guy’s natural ability and football IQ. Hangs around as the third QB with the potential to take over the back-up job in a few years.
- TE D.J. Tialavea - Tialavea was on-and-off the roster constantly last season due to injuries. I don’t expect that to change, as Tialavea is a great blocker who can catch a pass in a pinch.
- C/G Cornelius Edison - Edison has bounced around the league a bit, but he’s not a bad player. Could potentially be a good depth piece in the future on the interior.
- T Daniel Brunskill - developmental tackle. Brunskill has all the athletic ability you could want, but needs a year of NFL weight training and conditioning before he’s ready to get on the field.
- CB Taylor Reynolds - interesting player who had a good college career, despite being at a small school. Reynolds has potential as a future nickel or rotational DB.
- RB Terron Ward - Ward is a solid third RB, but he’s nothing spectacular. Still, having a dependable option that knows the scheme around is valuable. Ward should stick around on the practice squad if he loses his job to rookie Brian Hill.
- DE Martin Ifedi - Ifedi was on and off the practice squad last season, and is a rotational depth player. The staff must see something like like in him, as they continue bringing him back when he’s available.
- S Deron Washington - impressive athlete with a big build. Needs refinement in coverage and tackling, but all the physical traits you want.
- LB Jermaine Grace - Grace has had an interesting collegiate career, but has shown flashes of being an impressive, athletic LB. Fits the mold of what Quinn looks for in his LBs, could be a rotational piece down the road.
- WR Devin Fuller - last year’s 7th-round pick, Fuller will compete with Andre Roberts for the KR/PR role. If he loses (which I expect, as Roberts also offers more as a WR), he’ll likely end up on the practice squad to continue his development.
There you have it: my second roster projection. Let’s hope this one is more accurate than the first.
What do you think about the state of the Falcons’ roster? Who are some players that you’re keeping an eye on heading into training camp?