The fourth and final preseason game is nearly here. The Atlanta Falcons take on the Miami Dolphins on Thursday, and after that there’s less than a week to go until Week 1 against Philadelphia. It’s just about time to get excited for the regular season, but before that we’ve got another four quarters of watching reserves fight for roster and practice squad spots.
The Falcons will be resting their starters against Miami, but there are still quite a few interesting position battles to watch. Here are the most intriguing players to watch when the Falcons take on the Dolphins on Thursday.
Ricky Ortiz vs. Jalston Fowler
According to Dan Quinn, we should see the FBs play “20-25 snaps” during the Dolphins game. Obviously, they won’t be out there with the first string, but it’s still the best opportunity for Jalston Fowler to make his mark in the competition against Ricky Ortiz. Ortiz has looked good through three preseason games and is still clearly in the lead after getting all the snaps with the starters against Jacksonville.
It’s going to be difficult for Fowler to overtake Ortiz at this point, despite Fowler’s physical talent and experience. I know there is a very vocal section of the fanbase that believe Fowler’s short-yardage abilities are quite valuable, and think he should be the choice over Ortiz. We’ll see if the Falcons share those thoughts, but with Ortiz working with the starters all through training camp, it’ll take some impressive play from Fowler to seize the job.
The fact that Benkert has been pretty disappointing following his exciting debut against the Jets might actually be a good thing for the Falcons. Atlanta generally only carries two QBs on the roster, and if Benkert continued to play like he did against New York, he might’ve forced the team’s hand. Based on his performance over the last two games, it looks like he’ll be safe to stash on the practice squad.
That could all change with an electrifying performance on Thursday, however. While the QB situation in the league is improving, a young, cheap developmental player with upside—like Kurt Benkert—could be a tantalizing add, especially for a team with roster space that isn’t a contender. If he plays poorly in the last preseason game, he’ll probably be relatively safe on the practice squad. A strong performance may make things more risky, however.
Reggie Davis, Devin Gray, Dontez Byrd
With Marvin Hall in firm control of a roster spot and Russell Gage showing promise on both special teams and offense (plus, he’s a draft pick), the competition at WR has shifted from a roster spot to a practice squad spot. It’s strange to have such a fierce competition for the practice squad, but the Falcons have amassed an impressive amount of talent at the WR position.
Reggie Davis appears to have the leg up due to some strong special teams play, but Devin Gray and Dontez Byrd have both been making plays on offense too. It’s likely going to come down to the wire against the Dolphins, but one of these three is likely to end up with that practice squad spot—and with it, a serious advantage in the race for a roster spot in 2019.
Justin Zimmer vs. Jon Cunningham
This battle could very well end in a 53-man roster spot, although right now I’m giving the edge to Jonathan Celestin due to special teams. We didn’t see Jon Cunningham at all against the Jaguars—an interesting development since there was no announced injury and Cunningham had played well during the first two preseason games. That could mean that the team has seen enough and they simply want to sneak him onto the practice squad, or it could mean something else.
At any rate, Justin Zimmer has been flashing his crazy athletic potential over the past two games. He’s got the upside of an NFL starter if he can put it all together, although he’s still very raw with his technique. I think it’s a lock that one of these two DTs makes the practice squad, but I could definitely see the Falcons keeping both if they are legitimately interested. Terrell McClain is essentially a 1-year rental, and getting a cheap replacement would help the team’s salary cap and depth.
J.T. Jones vs. Anthony Winbush
Another battle that is likely to come down to the wire is the EDGE competition between second-year player J.T. Jones and UDFA rookie Anthony Winbush. Jones impressed during 2017’s training camp, but has had a quiet preseason in 2018. Winbush has shown flashes, but ultimately hasn’t put much on the stat sheet either. Both are talented and bring some versatility to the table with their ability to play SAM LB.
Based on the Jaguars game, the Falcons seem to prefer Jones—who got the lion’s share of snaps with the second-string defense. Winbush also got snaps with the second-string, but had to split them with hybrid DE/DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. I still think the competition is very close, so a strong performance from either one could earn them one of the final spots on the 53-man roster. The loser, however, is also likely to stick around on the practice squad.
Who are some of the players you’ll be watching closely during Thursday’s game? Any other position battles that you’re following? Who are some players that might surprise against the Dolphins?