We’re in the depths of the dead period, that terrible time between the draft and the beginning of training camp that is utterly devoid of news or any semblance of real football. So, in keeping with that theme, it’s clearly time for an entirely-too-early 53-man roster projection—plus practice squad!
I say entirely too early because the Falcons probably haven’t even totally finalized their 90-man roster for training camp, and it’s possible the team may sign a few more low-level veterans to provide more competition during the preseason. Still, it’s fun to do these little exercises, and it’s also fun to discuss them. Plus, what else is there to write about?
Take a look at my first crack at predicting the Falcons’ roster below.
OFFENSE - 26
QB - 3
Matt Ryan just signed a mega-deal and has arguably been a top-5 QB over the past two seasons. He isn’t going anywhere and the Falcons are insanely lucky to have him. As maligned as Matt Schaub has been this offseason, it doesn’t appear that Atlanta will be ready to move on from him prior to the 2018 season. Kurt Benkert is a very intriguing developmental prospect—so intriguing that, if he plays even decently in the preseason, the Falcons will probably have to carry him on the 53-man roster. Hopefully, Benkert can supplant Schaub in 2019 and save the team some much-needed cap space.
RB - 3
You won’t find a better 1-2 punch at RB in the NFL than Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and the duo remains together for at least one more NFL season in 2018. What happens in 2019 and beyond is anyone’s guess. Falcons’ 2018 4th-round pick Ito Smith rounds out the depth chart, and he should see some rotational snaps as a 3rd down option and perhaps also as a returner.
FB - 1
This particular battle is likely to be one of the most interesting to watch. We won’t get much of a read on the team’s feelings on any of the three FBs (McNitt, Marx, and Richard) until the preseason, so I’m having to go with my gut here. McNitt is a physically imposing FB prospect with insane strength—he was Lifter of the Year for Nebraska in 2017.
WR - 6
The top-3 of the Falcons WR corps might be the strongest in the league, and the competition for the remaining spots behind them will be fierce. Julio Jones remains in contention for the best WR in the NFL, Mohamed Sanu is a solid WR2 with a versatile skillset, and Ridley could be a huge boost to Atlanta’s offense with his superb route running. The final three are a toss-up, but Hardy remains the odds-on favorite to retain the WR4 role. Russell Gage likely has a leg-up on the competition due to his special teams contributions and WR/CB flexibility. The sixth and final spot comes down to Marvin Hall, Reggie Davis, and the rest of the UDFA crop—I’m going with Hall as the team seemed the most comfortable with him in 2017.
TE - 3
The Falcons’ TE group looks a little different this year thanks to the addition of Logan Paulsen to take over Levine Toilolo’s blocking duties (at a significantly reduced price). Austin Hooper will—hopefully—take another step forward as the TE1 in 2018. Eric Saubert is a bit of a wild-card, as he didn’t play much in 2017. He’s got a ton of a potential as a receiver, however, and the hope is that he’s ready to contribute in some capacity this season.
OL - 10
LT Jake Matthews
LG Andy Levitre
C Alex Mack
RG Brandon Fusco
RT Ryan Schraeder
C/G Ben Garland
G Wes Schweitzer
G Sean Harlow
T Austin Pasztor
T Ty Sambrailo
The Falcons are in a tight spot with their OL depth chart, particularly towards the bottom. At the top, the starting five are pretty much set in stone—four of five starters return from 2017, and recent free agent addition Brandon Fusco should provide a significant improvement at RG. The final spots are tricky, as Atlanta has invested either draft capital or significant funds in 4 other players—already bringing the total to 9.
Garland is making $2.9M on his second-round RFA tender, so he’s not going anywhere. Schweitzer was a solid starter at times in 2017, but was just too inconsistent—still, as a reserve, he’s certainly worth keeping around. Harlow, a 2017 4th-round selection, didn’t even see the field last year. Sambrailo required a 5th round pick in trade, and although he was pretty darn bad when he made it on the field, the Falcons clearly see something they like in him. I also think the Falcons should keep Austin Pasztor around, as he’s versatile and is probably a better swing tackle option than Sambrailo at this point.
DEFENSE - 24
EDGE - 4
The EDGE group is actually pretty similar to 2017, with Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley slated to see the lion’s share of snaps in nickel sets. Hopefully, Beasley can see better production with a fully-healed hamstring and a return to a full-time role on the EDGE. Takk had a very good rookie season, and should continue to build on his success this year. Brooks Reed will continue to provide rotational and base package ability as a versatile 3rd EDGE. J’Terius Jones spent the 2017 season on the practice squad after a standout training camp and preseason—I think he continues to impress, enough to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
DE/DT - 2
Even with the departure of Adrian Clayborn, the Falcons will continue to employ a few “hybrid” players that can contribute on the EDGE in base packages and at DT in nickel sets. Crawford is likely to be the primary interior pass rusher in nickel sets next to Grady Jarrett. Shelby was Atlanta’s best run defender on the edge in 2017, and he is likely to reprise that role during the 2018 season.
DT - 3
A depth chart with several new faces, the DT position was arguably the biggest need on the roster heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. The Falcons addressed that need with 3rd round pick Deadrin Senat and a recent free agent signing in Terrell McClain. Grady Jarrett will still get most of the snaps on the interior—particularly in nickel sets. McClain is primarily a run-stuffer, and I think he’ll play a similar role to Dontari Poe as the 3T in base packages. Senat was a 1T nose in college, and Quinn has often referred to him as such. He’ll man the 1T in a new-and-improved base defense that should help keep the LBs clean and Jarrett fresh for passing downs.
LB - 5
A position that looked like it might have a fair amount of turnover actually ends up pretty much the same. Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell remain one of the strongest young LB tandems, with Jones arguably the best coverage LB in the game. Duke Riley—a 3rd round pick in 2017—was disappointing in his rookie season, but is expected to make strides in his sophomore campaign. Ishmael was re-signed to be a solid reserve that can play both LB and SS, and is a big contributor on special teams. Oluokun was one of the Falcons’ two 6th round selections in 2018, and should be a factor on special teams while he develops as a depth LB.
CB - 6
It’s tough to decide, but CB may actually be the strongest position group on the roster with the addition of second round pick Isaiah Oliver. Desmond Trufant remains one of the best young CB1s in the game, and should have a better season another year removed from his injury. Robert Alford is also a very good CB1, and arguably played even better than Trufant in 2017. He also has the ability to play on the outside and in the slot at a high level. Oliver may or may not start at CB3, but he’s got sky-high potential as a match-up defender against bigger receivers.
Poole is a rock-solid slot option that is among Atlanta’s best tacklers, and he provides exceptional depth even if he gets pushed out of the starting line-up this season. Bethel is among the best gunners in the NFL and was signed primarily as a special teams player—he’s not a very good CB, but as your 5th or 6th option, he’s fine. Wreh-Wilson actually filled in admirably at times during the 2017 season, and is the favorite to be the CB6 if the Falcons do elect to keep that many on the roster.
SS - 2
The Falcons have one of the NFL’s best strong safeties in Keanu Neal, who is a punishing tackler and an exceptional player in coverage. Behind him there are considerable question marks, but Quincy Mauger looked impressive during the 2017 preseason before suffering a season-ending injury. If he can stay healthly and continue that solid play through training camp, Mauger has an excellent shot at making the roster as Neal’s primary back-up.
FS - 2
The Falcons haven’t yet been able to work out a long-term deal with Ricardo Allen, but Dimitroff mentioned it as one of their priorities. Allen is an above-average FS with surprisingly good tackling ability for a player his size, and is one of the leaders of the defense. Damontae Kazee—one of Atlanta’s 5th round picks last season—provided depth at both safety and CB, and could be a long-term option at either spot depending on what happens with Allen’s contract.
SPECIAL TEAMS - 3
K Matt Bryant
P Matt Bosher
LS Josh Harris
The one trio that hasn’t changed in many years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Matt Bryant remains one of the NFL’s best and most reliable kickers, still going strong at age 42. Matt Bosher is also one of the league’s best punters, continuing to find success behind what was a pretty bad special teams unit in 2017. Josh Harris is still his dependable self and does his job well—until that changes, there’s no reason to even think about replacing him.
PRACTICE SQUAD - 11
TE Alex Gray - the Falcons received another special International Player practice squad spot in 2018 for TE Alex Gray. He’s not eligible for the 53-man roster this season, but perhaps he’ll turn into something down the road.
C J.C. Hassenauer - a reserve interior offensive lineman for Alabama, Hassenauer sat behind some truly elite players (like Ryan Kelly) but is clearly very talented. He was considered one of the best centers in the nation coming out of high school, and played very well when called upon.
CB Deante Burton - I don’t know much about the UDFA group of CBs—and won’t until training camp starts—but Burton seems to have the build that Quinn covets at 6’2, 205. Perhaps he can develop into a useful piece in time.
DT Jon Cunningham - widely considered one of the Falcons’ best UDFA pick-ups, Jon Cunningham was a stout run defender at DT in college, with 10 tackles for loss in 2017. He’s got potential to make the roster in the future.
FS Marcelis Branch - a player from the practice squad that the Falcons elected to keep around, Branch had an up-and-down preseason in 2017. He’s clearly talented, and Atlanta seems to have continued interest in his development.
LB Emmanuel Smith - again, I don’t know a ton about the UDFA LBs the Falcons brought in. Smith seems like an interesting option, as he was productive when he was on the field for Vanderbilt but struggled with injuries throughout his college career.
EDGE Anthony Winbush - one of my favorite UDFAs that the Falcons brought in, Winbush was extremely productive as an edge rusher in college with 11.5 sacks and 16.5 TFL in 2017. He’s a bit undersized at 6’1, 249, but could have a future NFL role as a designated pass rusher.
T Matt Gono - the Falcons are clearly in the market for a long-term option at swing tackle, and the team reportedly outbid 5(!) other teams to acquire Gono as a UDFA. The D3 prospect is clearly talented, but it will take some time for him to acclimate to the NFL.
RB Malik Williams - the Falcons recently parted with Terrence Magee, which means Williams is competing against Justin Crawford for a spot on the practice squad. I think Williams gets the edge due to his physical running style and his ability in the passing game.
TE Jake Roh - Roh is perhaps the most intriguing UDFA the Falcons added, due to his versatile role as an H-back TE—think Trey Burton and you’re pretty close. He was insanely productive in college, but he’ll need to bulk up considerably to play TE in the NFL (where the Falcons have him listed).
WR Reggie Davis - I still like Davis a lot, and it’ll be a close battle in camp to decide if either he or Marvin Hall end up making the 53-man roster. Davis is a bit more dynamic, but isn’t quite as polished as Hall—plus, the team has shown a bit more trust in Hall thus far.
The Falcons have an extremely talented roster that should be in contention for the best in the NFL. They’ve compiled an elite level of talent across the board, with no glaring weaknesses and solid depth almost everywhere. The WR, RB, and CB groups are among the strongest in the league. In terms of weaknesses, TE is a group without a true stand-out player. DT and SS are thin behind the starters. But overall, the team is very strong and should absolutely be considered a contender in the stacked NFC.
Atlanta will have some difficult decisions to make with several position groups, including OL and WR. There will certainly be some quality players let go at the end of the preseason, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see other teams poach some of that talent (like we saw last year). Still, that’s a good problem to have—and until/unless the NFL expands rosters, the Falcons will continue to lose good players as long as they continue to draft well.
What do you think of this entirely too early roster projection? Who are some of your favorite UDFAs that you could see pushing for a roster spot in camp? Any veterans that you think could be surprisingly cut?