Atlanta’s final 53 man roster came both surprisingly close to what many of us predicted—the only real surprises were Chris Cooper and Austin Larkin not making it and Ricky Ortiz sticking—and came out close to the strongest possible configuration given the makeup of the 90 man roster. I don’t think that should pass without recognition.
The Falcons of 2018 were undone by many things, but one of the legitimately huge problems was depth. They didn’t have enough on the defensive line, they didn’t have enough early on at linebacker, they certainly didn’t have enough at safety, and they didn’t on the offensive line. The Falcons this year upgraded starters at key spots—Tyeler Davison is going to be the kind of run defender the Falcons were craving a year ago, and with any luck Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary will be great on the right side of the offensive line—but the on-paper improvement of depth is critically important for a veteran team with championship aspirations.
That’s why it matters that the Falcons aren’t relying on unproven depth at running back now. That’s why it matters that the Falcons have legitimate backups along the offensive line this time around. And that’s why it matters that the defense, particularly the defensive line, is suddenly filled with better rotational options and better run stoppers, something that the Falcons made clear was a priority.
So in that sense, it’s a very good sign that there were not weird surprises or quality veterans getting cut, because the Falcons built the team they wanted and actually managed to stuff it in under the cap. That’s a credit to Dan Quinn, who prioritized rebuilding the defense with him at the helm, and to Thomas Dimitroff, who has shown a knack for juggling a lot of contract negotiations. The NFC South is gonna be tough, there’s always a million things that could go wrong, but this really does look like a good football team. That was not a given in March, and it makes that interminable offseason a little more bearable.
With that praise out of the way, here are a few features of this initial roster that are worth calling out.
The RB stack
This is a little confusing and probably won’t stick, but the Falcons technically have six backs on the roster today. The decision to keep Ricky Ortiz genuinely surprised me, because the Falcons had been trotting out the likes of Luke Stocker, Qadree Ollison, and Jaeden Graham there in recent weeks, and because it became increasingly obvious they were going to keep five running backs.
Simply put, the Falcons aren’t going to use that many backs unless injury strikes. Ito Smith is an obvious candidate to pick up some passing down work, Brian Hill can mix in when Devonta Freeman needs a breather, and Qadree Ollison can get some light work on special teams, as a blocker, and as a bruising late game option, assuming he’s active on gameday. Kenjon Barner won’t touch the ball very often on offense, but he should get opportunity on special teams as a returner, and if Ollison is inactive he’ll pick up a smattering of carries here and there. The Falcons obviously like their backs a lot and may be hedging on Freeman’s health a bit here.
That’s doubly true of Ortiz. He didn’t get much of a shot to play under Steve Sarkisian last year, picking up a vanishingly small percentage of the offensive snaps and not knocking anyone’s socks off in his opportunities, but perhaps under Dirk Koetter the Falcons will use their fullback a lot more often. He’s a good athlete and solid blocker, at least.
Still, this position feels overstuffed at the moment because it is, with 1-2 of these players figuring to be inactive on a weekly basis, and Olamide Zaccheaus ready to step in as a returner early on if Kenjon Barner falters. If we’re sitting here in Week 17 and the Falcons have all six of these guys on the roster, I’ll be absolutely stunned.
The trenches, reborn
Both lines have been noticeably upgraded, at least on paper. On the defensive line, Takk McKinley, Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Jack Crawford still figure to get starter’s snaps, but the Falcons can now rotate in Adrian Clayborn, Allen Bailey, Tyeler Davison, and Deadrin Senat, with John Cominsky looming as a hyper-athletic wild card. That’s a better, deeper group than the team had access to a year ago. and everyone except Cominsky can come in and play significant snaps today if they need to.
The offensive line features fewer proven players but what looks like a better group. Ryan Schraeder was clearly hobbling at times last year, and Kaleb McGary, Matt Gono and Ty Sambrailo given the Falcons three options at right tackle with some upside, with McGary’s looking sky-high. Chris Lindstrom will take his lumps but looks to be a short-term and long-term upgrade on the Schweitzers, Chester and Fuscos of recent memory, and could turn into a terrific guard sooner than later. James Carpenter and Jamon Brown are still waiting to hear who won the left guard job, but both are proven players with a track record of at least solid play, more so in Carpenter’s case than Brown’s. If someone gets hurt, the Falcons have an obvious option to fill in, and there won’t be any Zane Beadles signings or the like to stitch the group together.
The Falcons will always live and die by their offense, and the linebacker group and secondary are filled with potential studs. Being better in the trenches just makes life easier for Atlanta, and for the first time in recent memory, they’ve genuinely prioritized it this year. That’s reflected in this roster.
The best men appear to have won
This isn’t universal, of course. I can argue and would argue that Austin Larkin played well enough to earn a roster spot over additions like Ortiz and even maybe Ollison, and scrambling legend Danny Etling should’ve made it. But generally, merit carried the day.
That was true at safety, where despite Chris Cooper’s solid play against the run and positional versatility, Sharrod Neasman won out. I had thought and perhaps hoped both would make it, but if it came down to one of them it ought to have been Neasman, who impressed at times as a starter last year and carries significant special teams value.
It was true at linebacker, where Jermaine Grace simply outplayed everyone and pushed his way past Bruce Carter, a solid enough veteran who might have stuck on another roster because of experience.
It was true at receiver, where Olamide Zaccheaus just outplayed the likes of Marcus Green and Christian Blake, however narrowly in the latter case. Green could’ve stuck because of his draft status and Blake because the coaching staff was smitten with him from early on, but the Falcons gave the job to a guy with some special teams value and the best preseason track record.
And finally, it happened at kicker, where the team decided to tuck its collective tail between its leg and go back to the best option available. Let’s talk about that a little bit more to finish this one up.
The Matt Bryant decision
I griped about this a little bit on Twitter multiple times in recent days, but I wanted to make it a little clearer why I’m happy with the decision to bring Matt Bryant back but less than thrilled with the process the Falcons took to get there.
Why? The Falcons were quick to dunk on “Twitter GMs” in the wake of the announcement that Bryant would be returning, as is their Football Gods-given right, but the idea that they managed their cap all offseason specifically to have the option to lure him back seems iffy at best. The separation between the two parties was not particularly graceful at the time, Bryant’s wife Melissa has made it clear on social media that the move was neither welcome nor made with any kind of wink wink handshake in the background, and Thomas Dimitroff already is known for carefully managing the cap to maintain flexibility, no matter how slight.
The Falcons also, you’ll recall, elected to call upon Blair Walsh last week after Giorgio Tavecchio’s ugly sub-40 yard miss in Week 3 of preseason set off alarm bells all over Georgia. At the time, Dan Quinn said the Falcons considered Bryant but decided not to sign him, which didn’t sit well with basically anyone. Then the news leaked that the Falcons were working out Bryant on Friday before Tavecchio and Walsh ever had a chance to kick against the Jaguars in Week 4, making it blindingly obvious that the Falcons were going to re-sign him regardless of what either kicker did in the preseason finale. Cap that off with the fact that the Falcons are essentially paying Bryant a touch more than they would’ve paid him if they just kept him in the first place—and keep in mind that cost and age seemed to be the big factors when they moved on—and I don’t think anyone truly believes that this was the backup plan all along.
The team deserves credit for not stubbornly sticking with Tavecchio as his misses mounted just because that was the course they mapped, but they were extremely fortunate that Bryant didn’t get another job while they let that experiment run its course. Regardless of what went down behind the scenes, the Falcons played this well enough to get Bryant back without blowing through all of their cap space, but there was more luck involved in that then I think any of us care to admit.
Ultimately, all’s well that ends well, and knowing Bryant will be kicking for this football team sits well with me and probably 99.9% of this Falcons fanbase. I have no doubt he’s heading into this year healthy and as good as ever, and hopefully he’ll kick well and stay healthy all year long. The Falcons would do wise to remember how this all unfolded a year from now when they will likely be re-visiting the kicker position once more.