Atlanta Falcons training camp is officially only a few days away. We also just got the news that Grady Jarrett signed a 4-year extension, eliminating that potential 2020 problem before it could even begin. In other words, it’s all good here at The Falcoholic.
But before we get training camp kicked off in earnest, it’s time for another early 53-man roster projection (plus practice squad)! I’ll do my best to predict Atlanta’s final roster based on who is currently under contract, and I’ll probably be very, very wrong. Oh well, it’s part of the fun.
In case you missed it, here is the previous edition: Absurdly Early Edition
Changes from my last projection will be marked with italics.
OFFENSE - 25
QB - 2
Matt Ryan is #elite and is, of course, the locked-in starter for the Falcons. While it’s possible that second-year QB Kurt Benkert could win the backup job in camp, Matt Schaub is still the favorite—particularly with his significantly cheaper cap hit this season ($1.4M in 2019 versus $4.5M in 2018).
RB - 4
We’ll all be hoping that Devonta Freeman returns to full health and effectiveness this season, as he’s the unquestioned starter heading into camp. The primary backup is likely to be second-year RB Ito Smith, who has a similar running style to Freeman and was a solid contributor in 2018. Rookie Qadree Ollison will take on the short-yardage role, and could also push Ito for snaps at RB2. With the Falcons unlikely to carry a FB in 2019, the door is open for third-year RB Brian Hill—who had a strong performance to close out 2018—to reclaim his spot on the roster.
TE - 4
Austin Hooper is the locked-in TE1 after posting a career year as both a receiver and a blocker in 2018. Luke Stocker is one of the Falcons’ biggest FA additions—he’s a versatile blocker who can line up inline or as a FB, and can also contribute in the passing game. 2019 is Eric Saubert’s time to shine—he needs to prove that he can take the next step as a blocker and receiver to earn a second contract from the Falcons. Blocking specialist Logan Paulsen was re-signed after being allowed to test free agency, which likely signals a lot of 2-TE sets this season.
WR - 6
The strongest position on Atlanta’s roster and arguably the best group in the league, the Falcons have an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver. Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu form a dynamic trio that will be the backbone of Atlanta’s offense in 2019. Second-year WR Russell Gage is likely to take on a much larger role this season with another year of coaching under his belt. Rookie WR/RB Marcus Green is the favorite to win the return job, and he offers impressive athleticism and receiving ability from both positions. I’m going to make a bold prediction here and say that Justin Hardy will lose his roster spot to UDFA WR Kahlil Lewis—a deep threat with excellent hands and more impressive athleticism.
OL - 9
LT Jake Matthews
LG James Carpenter
C Alex Mack
RG Chris Lindstrom
RT Kaleb McGary
G Jamon Brown
C/G Wes Schweitzer
G/T Ty Sambrailo
OT Matt Gono
The Falcons suddenly have a plethora of depth on the offensive line after an offseason that saw the team add two starting-caliber guards in free agency and two first round picks. LT Jake Matthews and C Alex Mack are the only returning starters from 2018, and they’re both very good. The rookie duo seems to be getting their starting reps on the right side, with Chris Lindstrom at RG and Kaleb McGary at RT, and both are the favorites at their respective positions. LG will come down to the two free agents: James Carpenter has experience and better pass protection on his side, while Jamon Brown has youth, contract, and powerful run blocking in his corner. That one is a true toss-up.
With so much depth, the Falcons are going to be keeping at least 9 OL in 2019. The loser of the LG battle is likely to be the primary interior backup. Wes Schweitzer has apparently been cross-training extensively at C, and he’s likely to be depth behind Mack. Ty Sambrailo just signed a new deal and proved he could be a solid starter at both guard and tackle—he’ll be the swing tackle in 2019. The final spot is a toss-up, but I’d expect 2018 UDFA Matt Gono to hold on to his roster spot. The Falcons have invested significant time in developing him, and I think they’d like to continue on that path.
DEFENSE - 25
EDGE - 5
The position with the most variance on the defense is undoubtedly EDGE, where the Falcons have significant question marks but also a lot of potential. Vic Beasley is currently the most hated man on Atlanta’s roster due to his high cap hit ($12.8M) despite his mediocre play over the past two seasons. The Falcons desperately need him to rebound in 2019. Takkarist McKinley had an impressive second season in 2018, and will likely finish 2019 as the Falcons’ best pass rusher. Adrian Clayborn returns after a year with the Patriots, where he will reprise his role as the 3rd EDGE and a nickel interior rusher. Rookie John Cominsky could play at either EDGE or DT—but his snaps will likely be limited this year. Chris Odom makes his comeback after an impressive stint in the AAF (RIP), where he’ll provide solid depth for the Falcons after the loss of Steven Means.
DT - 4
Grady Jarrett just signed his 4-year extension, cementing him as a cornerstone of the Falcons’ DL for years to come. Jack Crawford will reprise his role as the secondary pass rusher opposite Grady in the nickel, where he had a career year in 2018 (6.0 sacks!). Second-year DT Deadrin Senat will be expected to contribute more in 2019, and I’m excited to see his development. Free agent addition Tyeler Davison will be Atlanta’s primary interior run stuffer—I’d expect to see a lot of him in the base defense alongside Senat to give Grady and Crawford a rest. With Adrian Clayborn and John Cominsky both able to play a little on the interior as well, I think the Falcons keep only 4 true DTs heading into 2019.
LB - 5
After being hit by injury in 2018, Deion Jones returned to have a solid close to the season. It’s incredible how much better the Falcons looked with him back on the field, and he should be fully healthy for 2019. De’Vondre Campbell is heading into a contract year, and while he’s consistently played at an above-average level, this is his chance to prove to Atlanta (and other teams) that he’s worth a big deal in 2020. Second-year LB Foyesade Oluokun, who seized the starting WILL role from Duke Riley and never looked back, is expected to remain the starter in 2019. Veteran Bruce Carter looked solid when pressed into duty last season, and his value as a versatile and trustworthy backup should give him a leg up for a roster spot. LB5 is going to be a fierce competition, with players like Duke Riley, Kemal Ishmael, and UDFA Tre Crawford battling it out. I do expect Jermaine Grace, who is returning to Atlanta after a brief stint in Indianapolis, to win out—his blend of athleticism and coverage ability makes him a perfect fit for the Falcons.
CB - 6
CB is going to look drastically different in 2019, as two starters (Robert Alford and Brian Poole) have been replaced. Desmond Trufant will continue to man the CB1 role, but second-year CB Isaiah Oliver will be starting opposite him on the outside. Damontae Kazee will be transitioning from FS to take over the slot CB role, where his ballhawking and tackling skills should come in handy. Behind them is the versatile Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who has proven himself a solid spot starter on the inside and outside. Rookies Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller will both serve as depth in 2019, but don’t be surprised if you see Quinn work them in throughout the season.
S - 5
SS Keanu Neal
FS Ricardo Allen
S Sharrod Neasman
S J.J. Wilcox
S Chris Cooper
Both Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are expected to be fully healthy in time for the regular season, and it also appears that both will be participating in the start of training camp. Having that dynamic duo on the back end of the defense will make a huge difference for Atlanta in 2019. Behind them, the Falcons have vastly improved depth. After the Jordan Richards experiment failed miserably, Sharrod Neasman won the starting job and looked solid. He’ll be Neal’s primary backup once more. Atlanta also brought in veteran J.J. Wilcox, who has played both safety spots, as additional depth. This fifth spot is likely the “final” spot on the roster and will come down to special teams acumen and developmental potential. Chris Cooper has flashed early in the offseason as a CB/S hybrid, and the team may be more willing to carry additional safety depth after what happened in 2018.
SPECIAL TEAMS - 3
K Giorgio Tavecchio
P Matt Bosher
LS Josh Harris
A major change to the special teams occurred when the Falcons parted ways with the legendary Matt Bryant. In his place is 2018 spot starter Giorgio Tavecchio, who looked good in limited action but is otherwise a bit of a question mark. Don’t expect him to be Bryant, but the Falcons under Dimitroff have had an uncanny ability to find good kickers. Matt Bosher returns as the punter, and he should be good once again in 2019. LS Josh Harris actually has competition this year in the form of UDFA Kyle Vasey, but I’d expect him to retain the job barring an injury.
PRACTICE SQUAD - 10
QB Kurt Benkert - Benkert is the heir apparent for Schaub—the Falcons didn’t even bring in any other UDFAs to compete in camp. The big question is whether Benkert wins the battle this year, or if Schaub holds him off until 2020.
RB Tony Brooks-James - Brooks-James was very impressive in OTAs and minicamp, and RB is volatile position with injuries. Expect the team to keep him close if he continues to look good.
TE Jaeden Graham - I love Alex Gray’s story, but he’s got one thing working against him as a developmental TE: his age (28). Jaeden Graham, meanwhile, is only 23. Neither have really stood out, but Graham has the “intangible” leg up.
WR Olamide Zaccheaus - Zaccheaus is a good WR, particularly for a UDFA add. The reason he might not make the roster is due to him being a very similar player to Gage and Green. I wouldn’t be shocked if Atlanta keeps him close, or if another team signs him after cuts.
G Sean Harlow - Harlow has so far failed to impress the Falcons enough to keep him on the roster long-term. His saving grace is that he still has practice squad eligibility, and he’s a past draft pick.
EDGE Durrant Miles - The Falcons seem to like Miles, but that’s basically all we have to go off of at this point. Preseason will tell us a lot about which EDGE is likely to stick on the practice squad.
DT Justin Zimmer - Zimmer has incredible athletic gifts, but the Falcons are stacked at DT. He’ll be in a battle for the 5th DT spot (if the Falcons elect to keep one), but he should be ticketed for the practice squad again at worst.
LB Tre’ Crawford - Crawford has a chance to be Campbell’s heir apparent. At 6’3, 236, he’s got a similar build and a similar skillset. He’s also very raw, just like Campbell coming out. If the Falcons can’t re-sign Campbell in 2020, Crawford could potentially step into the SLB role.
CB Jayson Stanley - Dan Quinn loves his conversion projects, and I expect Jayson Stanley to continue that trend. Stanley is an excellent tackler and special teams player, but he’ll take some time to learn the ropes at CB. 2020 will be his chance to earn a roster spot.
DB Rashard Causey - A versatile defensive back who reminds me a little of Brian Poole, Causey is a physical CB/S hybrid with a varied skillset. He can blitz, he’s got a nose for the ball (3 FF, 6 PD in 2018), and he’s a quality tackler. He could be a future depth option for Atlanta.
As it was in 2018, the Falcons’ 2019 roster doesn’t have many unsettled roster spots. Still, there are a few intriguing battles to watch—and there are always surprise UDFAs that make the team (Richard Jarvis, anyone?). What are your thoughts on this early roster projection? Any players you’d move around? Favorites for the practice squad?