Yesterday, we took a closer look at who should be considered the frontrunners for those final roster spots on the offensive side of the ball. Today, we turn our attention to the defense, where the spots available are a bit less certain but the competition is legitimate and legitimately interesting across the board.
Tenth defensive lineman
Original Competition: Steven Means, John Cominsky, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Justin Zimmer, Chris Odom, Austin Larkin, Durrant Miles
Current Competition: Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Justin Zimmer, Chris Odom, Austin Larkin, Durrant Miles
The injury to Steven Means took him out of the running for a spot he almost certainly would have won. John Cominsky has a roster spot locked up as DQ’s mancrush. That leaves the competition for a final spot, if a final spot is to be awarded, with four guys.
None of them have played poorly. Tuioti-Mariner has come on a little bit with increased playing time in recent weeks, showing improved strength as a run stuffer. Zimmer is always around the ball thanks to his quickness even if he hasn’t finished out many memorable plays at this point. Miles has a sack and certainly looks quick. And Odom has been very solid, even if he’s not lighting the world on fire like he did back in August 2017.
Larkin, though, has been the standout. He’s shown off a relentless motor, some good moves as a pass rusher, and physicality that has served him well as a defender and a special teamer. Barring a faceplant or a spot simply not being available alongside the likes Takk McKinley, Vic Beasley, Allen Bailey, Adrian Clayborn, Cominsky, Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davison, Jack Crawford, and Deadrin Senat, Larkin ought to be the guy. The big question is whether he’ll still be hanging on when Ra’Shede Hageman is eligible to return in Week 3 of the regular season.
Likely Winner: Austin Larkin
Fourth and fifth linebackers
Original Competition: Kemal Ishmael, Duke Riley, Tre’ Crawford, Yurik Bethune, Jermaine Grace, Bruce Carter, Del’Shawn Phillips, Stephone Anthony
Current Competition: Duke Riley, Tre’ Crawford, Yurik Bethune, Jermaine Grace, Bruce Carter, Del’Shawn Phillips
This one shifted pretty dramatically once the Falcons moved Kemal Ishmael (at least partially) to safety and the young guys got on the field, because they’ve dominated snaps and occasionally games. Jermaine Grace looks really good and carries real special teams value, Del’Shawn Phillips has quietly played well on both units, and Yurik Bethune to a greater extent and Tre’ Crawford to a lesser extent have had their moments.
The outstanding question is how many linebackers the Falcons will carry (I expect at least five), and whether the Falcons will want some veteran experience back there. We’ve seen very little Duke Riley to this point but I imagine his special teams value will earn him a spot if he can get healthy and provide some value in the next couple of weeks. It’s a more unsettled picture than it has been in a couple of offseasons, however. Grace feels like a virtual lock if he stays healthy, because he’s been the most impressive reserve linebacker for weeks running now.
I’d expect Del’Shawn Phillips to nab a practice squad spot, but none of Crawford, Bethune or Phillips would shock me.
Likely Winners: Duke Riley and Jermaine Grace
Original Competitors: Kendall Sheffield, Jordan Miller, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Jayson Stanley, Taveze Calhoun, Rashad Causey
Current Competitors: Jordan Miller, Kendal Sheffield, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Jayson Stanley, Jalen Myrick, Taveze Calhoun
At this point, the big lingering question is around Kendall Sheffield’s health. If he’s healthy I expect him to head into the year as the de facto fourth or fifth cornerback, with Jordan Miller serving as the other guy. The problem is that we don’t know if Sheffield is going to be well soon, and in the absence of that information we can only tentatively pencil him in.
If anyone’s going to make the roster beyond Miller and Sheffield, it’s probably Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who has been remarkably solid every time the team has called upon him and has been around this defense for multiple seasons now. Stanley has talent but also misadventures in the early going, while Calhoun has been around but hasn’t been able to make much of an impact between injury and playing time. Maybe Myrick will impress with his speed and force his way into the conversation over the next two weeks, but the favorites here aren’t difficult to figure out.
Assuming Sheffield’s healthy, though, it’s probably him. Miller has outplayed him to this point but he’s got a ton of upside.
Likely Winner: Kendall Sheffield
Reserve safety roles
Original Competitors: J.J. Wilcox, Ryan Neal, Sharrod Neasman, Chris Cooper, Afolabi Laguda, Parker Baldwin
Current Competitors: Ronald Martin, Ryan Neal, Sharrod Neasman, Chris Cooper, Kemal Ishmael, Parker Baldwin
The safety depth is truly unsettled, and that situation was made worse by the loss of likely third safety J.J. Wilcox, who had impressed the coaching staff before suffering a season-ending injury. The team has cycled out multiple other safeties (Laguda, Jason Thompson) but still have a pretty clear group of contenders for spots.
That probably doesn’t include Martin, a relatively recent signing who hasn’t had a ton of time with the team yet, unless he’s getting major run and a role in the next couple of weeks. Ditto Ryan Neal, who has gotten run but has had uneven efforts to this point. And also ditto Parker Baldwin, who has had a couple of nice plays but could probably use a season on the practice squad before he punches his way onto the roster.
That leaves three obvious contenders. Ishmael has long safety experience—he even started there for the Falcons, once upon a time—and is one of the most valuable special teamers on the roster. Cooper is coming off a nice game and has the athleticism and skill set Dan Quinn seems fond of for free safety, which makes him a logical backup to Ricardo Allen with the versatility to play a little corner if needed. And Neasman has simply been solid-to-good across the board every time the Falcons have called upon him, so he should sneak on.
Likely Winners: Kemal Ishmael, Chris Cooper, Sharrod Neasman
Who do have you winning these spots?