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Final Falcons roster battle primer for 2019

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Here’s what you should know heading into tonight’s final preseason game.

NFL: AUG 22 Preseason - Redskins at Falcons

What roster spots are still open? Who is still competing in the final preseason game? If you’ve forgotten or you just need it collected all in one place, I’m here to help.

Running back: #3 job, #4/#5 and returner

Competitors: Qadree Ollison, Brian Hill, Kenjon Barner, Marcus Green

The #3 job is down to Qadree Ollison and Brian Hill, with Hill looking like he has the leg up given his strong summer and more varied skill set at the moment. The Falcons could keep four backs or even five backs if they don’t keep a fullback around, with Barner or Green serving as returners

Favorites: Brian Hill, Kenjon Barner

Wide receiver: #6 job

Competitors: Olamide Zaccheaus, Devin Gray, Christian Blake, Marcus Green, C.J. Worton

The Falcons may do some funky things with their positions on offense this year, given their signaled intent to use a tight end as a fullback, and that could mean they only go with five receivers. If, as has been the case in recent years, they stick with six, you’re looking at these competitors. Worton is probably the biggest underdog at this point with Blake’s impressive practices, Gray’s strong in-game performances, and Zaccheaus’s intriguing skillset making them the three favorites. I don’t have a strong feel for who is going to actually take this gig, but given the endless praise for Blake from coaches and players, let’s lean there.

Favorite: Christian Blake

Tight end: #3 job

Competitors: Jaeden Graham, Alex Gray, Logan Paulsen

Trading away Eric Saubert made it clear the Falcons had a guy in mind for this gig, and Jaeden Graham’s strong follow-up performances make it clear it’s him. Paulsen is a good player who just turned in a nice year for Atlanta in 2019, but the Falcons could use a developmental guy with upside and Graham has flashed as a receiver, dabbled at fullback, and shown at least a willingness to block along the way.

Like RB, we could be surprised by the team keeping another player, and if it’s four you’ll see Paulsen and Graham.

Favorite: Jaeden Graham

Defensive line: One final job

Competitors: Austin Larkin, Chris Odom, Justin Zimmer, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Durrant Miles

I’ve said all along that this is a crowded group, and whoever snags the final job here may be ceding a job to Ra’Shede Hageman in a couple of weeks anyways. That said, there’s a collection of intriguing talent here, with Larkin playing well all preseason, Miles enjoying some strong games, Zimmer continuing to look like a disruptive force in the making, and Odom and Tuioti-Mariner enjoying quality stretches. It’s not going to be easy to let go of any of them, and I would not be shocked to see two hit the practice squad.

Like wide receiver, I don’t have the strongest feel for who is going to make it here, but Larkin’s performance and experience make him the strongest fit, and thus I consider him the favorite at the moment. The team’s defensive tackle depth is absurd, so having a guy like Larkin available at end might be more important in the early going.

Favorite: Austin Larkin

Linebacker: All the reserve roles

Competitors: Bruce Carter, Duke Riley, Jermaine Grace, Tre’ Crawford, Yurik Bethune, Del’Shawn Phillips

It’s pretty wide open here, unusually. You can pencil in Kemal Ishmael, but he’ll be splitting time between linbacker and safety as needed, with more time likely coming at safety. That leaves 2-3 spots open for a young, genuinely talented group that has been impressive throughout the summer.

Carter has puttered along like he’s got a role locked up, which is why it may be dangerous for me not to add him to my list of favorites. He’s solid against the run and a fine special teamer, but I think the other guys the Falcons have assembled have played well enough that he may not be necessary. If the team keeps six players, though, Carter’s an obvious final guy.

The others are Grace and Riley. Grace has been superlative all summer and has looked like the team’s best defender during these preseason games, with all the fluidity and speed you’d expect from a guy with that last name. He should be a lock for this roster. Riley will get run to build on his strong game last Thursday, but the team seems determined to have him reach his potential in a Falcons jersey, he can play and play well on teams, and if he’s made real progress he belongs on this team.

Phillips has also been impressive but may lose out on a roster spot to the numbers game, while Bethune and Crawford have promise. You may see two of them on the practice squad when all is said and done.

Favorites: Duke Riley, Jermaine Grace

Safety: #5 job

Competitors: Ryan Neal, Sharrod Neasman, Ronald Martin

Why do I think the Falcons will keep five safeties when all is said and done? Chiefly because last year made the need for quality safety depth urgently known, and while Ricardo Allen and

Kemal Ishmael probably has the job backing up Keanu Neal and I still think Chris Cooper is an odds-on favorite for the gig behind Ricardo Allen, especially since he’s shown he can mix in at nickel corner and not embarrass himself if it comes to that. That leaves one open spot—and again, this is educated guesswork based on what we know of the Falcons’ rostering habits and needs—

The obvious choice in my mind is Neasman. He started games and played well a year ago and he’s a useful special teamer for new coordinator Ben Kotwica, and ultimately he deserves a spot on this team.

Favorite: Sharrod Neasman

Kicker

Competitors: Giorgio Tavecchio, Blair Walsh

The Falcons were riding a wave of good feelings this summer, given the way they built the roster up and how healthy the team looked after stars like Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, and others got back out there. The kicker troubles of 2019 are threatening to derail that entirely.

The team must have felt like they executed a plan to perfection when they had Tavecchio as an injury fill-in for Matt Bryant and he went 5/5, especially when he blasted a long kick without breaking a sweat. But he’s been much less sturdy in August, including two worrying misses in the last two weeks that went wide left, and that’s led to increased scrutiny of the decision to let go of Bryant.

That’s probably why Bryant is working out tomorrow, and while he’s not on the roster, he’s now the favorite to take the job.

Favorite: Matt Bryant

Returner: KR and PR jobs

Competitors: Olamide Zaccheaus, Marcus Green, Ito Smith, Kenjon Barner

Based on what we’ve seen this summer, there are only four guys left competing for the returner gigs. Based on Dan Quinn’s comments, Barner appears to be the favorite for the KR job at minimum, and he may just wind up taking both. Don’t sleep on Justin Hardy returning punts again if it comes down to it, though.

Favorite: Kenjon Barner