As we plow into the offseason most plowfully, we tend to focus on the big changes. We want to know if Vic Beasley, Ryan Schraeder and Robert Alford will be back, if the team will invest a first round draft choice at defensive end or guard, and which starters might take a major leap forward. We tend to focus less on the depth, at least until the summer.
As we learned this past year, that’s probably a mistake. Falcons fans (and really all NFL fans) tend to get crotchety when the team invests in a low-grade signing in March, grumbling that they’re not an impact player, but the Falcons were doomed as much by a lack of quality depth as they were by a lack of quality starters a year ago. When their safeties went down, they didn’t immediately have two starting-caliber players to roll out, and their depth at guard, linebacker, and defensive end proved lacking for much of the year, as well.
So let’s take a moment and identify some areas where the Falcons are going to need augmented depth, even if their team is truly healthy.
I like Russell Gage and Marvin Hall, so I don’t view this as an outsized need. I think the Falcons are still likely to try to bolster their depth at the position, however.
That’s because Justin Hardy’s a free agent, Hall and Gage still haven’t carried any kind of significant load, and even if they re-sign Hardy an injury would catapult one of these guys into a major role they may not be equipped to handle. Given this team’s love for young receivers, I’d expect them to draft one late to give them more depth and, potentially, a capable option to grow into a starting role down the line.
Austin Hooper is fresh off a Pro Bowl year, but he’s not being backed up by inspiring choices at the moment. I like Eric Saubert as much as anybody and hope his third season will be his best yet, but he’s yet to show that he can be a reliable receiving option. Beyond him, there’s only converted rugby-er Alex Gray and UDFA Jaeden Graham at the moment, meaning the Falcons currently have no proven backup whatsoever.
If the team thinks Saubert is ready to take the leap and Gray and Graham have benefitted from marinating on the practice squad, so be it. But this feels like a position that would become an active liability if Hooper got hurt, and so it’s one where I think you’ll see the Falcons either investing a draft choice or adding a veteran like Luke Stocker or Logan Paulsen to the mix.
Guard is probably the first answer that springs to mind here, but the reality is that the Falcons need to upgrade their starters more than their depth there, and losing both guards in one year is probably rare enough that the Falcons shouldn’t pour huge resources into solving that. Wes Schweitzer now has about two full seasons of games under his belt as a starter at both left guard and right guard and is one of the better depth options in the league as a result, and the Falcons have Matt Gono and Sean Harlow kicking around to serve as bottom of the roster depth. They’ll almost certainly invest resources at the position, but that’ll only make the depth that much stronger.
Tackle, however, is a real black hole at the moment. Ty Sambrailo is an impending free agent and Gono is an unproven option the team may want to see at guard anyways, and Ryan Schraeder is coming off a poor season. The Falcons essentially have no depth there at the moment, and are going to need to bring some in no matter what they elect to have start there. Sambrailo remains the likeliest candidate to return.
The Falcons are woefully thin at end, even if there are logical options to fix that. Right now, it’s just Takk McKinley, Vic Beasley and Brooks Reed, and neither Beasley nor Reed are absolute locks to be on the roster in early September. Atlanta can re-sign Bruce Irvin and Steven Means, and if they’re drafting or signing a high-end starter and kicking Beasley to a part-time role, that may well be enough to get them through next season. You just would hate to see them neglect a position that did not take a step forward in 2018.
This is a lowkey need, but one worth noting. With a healthy Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell and Foye Oluokun, this team is in pretty good shape at the top of the depth chart. Behind them, though, they basically only have Duke Riley under contract, and Riley has had two straight seasons of poor tackling and coverage adventures that suggest he shouldn’t be the primary option up in case of injury. The Falcons can re-sign Bruce Carter or Kemal Ishmael, but it’d be nice to have a higher-end option to either kick Oluokun into a reserve role or serve as an option of first resort if the injury bug bites again.