With free agency and the draft behind us, we’re finally getting a closer look at what the Falcons roster will look like heading into training camp. The team now has 87 out of 90 players signed, including six rookies and 20 UDFAs. While there are likely to be some other free agent additions as we get closer to camp and the start of the regular season, it’s never too early to try to project the final 53-man roster!
Before proceeding, I feel that it’s important to clarify some of the rule changes surrounding rosters in 2020. There’s a belief going around that rosters have increased in size to 55. This is not true. Instead, rosters will remain 53 outside of gamedays. However, two additional players from the practice squad may be elevated to the roster on gamedays—bringing the gameday roster total to 55. After gameday, the two players will revert to the practice squad. The number of active players allowed on gameday will also be increased from 46 to 48, provided one of the two additional players is an OL. In addition, practice squads will increase in size—permanently—to 12.
With all that rule clarification out of the way, let’s dive in to my first 53-man roster projection (plus practice squad!) of the 2020 offseason.
Italics indicate a change from the 2019 roster.
OFFENSE - 25
QB - 2
We know Matt Ryan will handle the starting QB job and should continue to play at a high level for the Falcons. Is this finally the year for a young QB to overtake Matt Schaub at QB2? It’s fair to wonder how much Schaub has left in the tank, as he’ll be 39 by the time training camp begins. Kurt Benkert was having a strong camp and preseason before suffering a season-ending injury in 2019. If he can return healthy, I think this is the year he finally takes over the backup role. Helping matters is the fact that Atlanta can save $2M in cap space by moving on from Schaub—money they can use during the season, or potentially roll over into 2021. With the team able to elevate 2 practice squad members to the roster every week, I’d expect the third QB to be one of these players and remain off the roster unless needed.
RB/FB - 5
RB Todd Gurley
RB Ito Smith
RB Brian Hill
RB Qadree Ollison
FB Keith Smith
The RB depth chart looks different at the top this season, but is basically the same as 2019 otherwise. Todd Gurley will be the lead back and will hopefully provide an upgrade over Devonta Freeman as the starter. Behind him will be a committee of several players. Ito Smith, if healthy, figures to be the RB2 and factor heavily into the passing game. Brian Hill is likely to be Gurley’s primary backup and should have a similar role. Qadree Ollison will probably be featured in a similar role as 2019: a short-yardage and goal line specialist who can use his power and size to get those difficult yards. Keith Smith played well last season and earned a multi-year extension—he’ll be the FB for the foreseeable future.
WR - 6
Atlanta experienced a fair amount of turnover at the WR position between 2019 and 2020. Gone are long-term fixtures Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy, but the top two options in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley remain the same. Russell Gage will likely get the first shot at the WR3 role. Ex-first rounder Laquon Treadwell flamed out in Minnesota and never really produced, but perhaps a change of scenery will help him reach his potential in Atlanta. He’s got the size that the rest of the WR corps lacks and could be in a line for a Sanu-like role.
Olamide Zaccheaus burst onto the scene with a spectacular 93-yard TD as the first catch of his career. He’s got speed, RAC ability, and has a ton of potential—he should be among the favorites to make the roster in 2020. The final spot is likely to go to whomever wins the returner battle, and my money is on UDFA Chris Rowland. Atlanta gave him a considerable signing bonus, and Rowland was an electric returner throughout his college career.
TE - 4
Koetter loves his TEs, so I expect the Falcons to carry as many as they can into the season. New addition Hayden Hurst will be expected to take over the TE1 role and replicate Austin Hooper’s production. Third-year player Jaeden Graham turned an impressive 2019 preseason into a roster spot and made some plays during the regular season—he’s the favorite for the TE2 role, especially if he can improve his blocking. UDFA Jared Pinkney is probably the best blocker on the roster already, and I’d be shocked if he didn’t make the roster considering the competition. If the Falcons do elect to carry 4 TEs, I’d keep an eye on XFL standout Khari Lee—he’s got good size, athleticism, and plenty of experience.
OL - 8
LT Jake Matthews
LG James Carpenter
C Alex Mack
RG Chris Lindstrom
RT Kaleb McGary
C/G Matt Hennessy
G/T Matt Gono
G Jamon Brown
The hardest position on the roster to project right now is the offensive line, where the Falcons have a ton of depth players all competing for a fairly limited number of slots. The starting lineup is pretty much set outside of left guard. Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom, and Kaleb McGary can probably be written in pen. At LG, we’re likely to see a pretty fierce competition between 2019 free agent additions James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, former UDFA Matt Gono, 2020 third-rounder Matt Hennessy, and recent free agent addition Justin McCray.
The top performers in that competition are likely the ones who will be given the final roster spots. Atlanta has kept as many as 9 OL, but usually only 8. Matt Gono is going to be the swing tackle regardless of whether or not he wins LG, so he’s safe. Same for Matt Hennessy, who will be the primary backup at center and a future starter. The Falcons eat over $6M in dead cap by cutting Jamon Brown, so I have a hard time seeing the team doing that. They can, however, save $4.75M by trading him—and it’s a very similar story for James Carpenter. Don’t be shocked if the lesser performer of those two winds up being traded to an OL-needy team for peanuts and the team keeps Justin McCray instead—McCray’s versatility at C, G, and T is valuable.
DEFENSE - 25
EDGE - 5
Dante Fowler Jr.
The EDGE group will look very different at the top in 2020 with big free agent addition Dante Fowler taking on the lead pass rushing role. Beside him on passing downs will be fourth-year player Takk McKinley, who has struggled with injuries and consistency throughout his career—Atlanta just announced they would not pick up his fifth-year option, making 2020 a contract year. Allen Bailey is likely to be a fixture in the base package on the strongside and has some interior flexibility, too. Veteran Steven Means missed 2019 with a season-ending injury, but the team appears to love him and he’ll likely play a rotational role. If the Falcons keep 10 defensive linemen, look for former UDFA Austin Larkin to take the final spot: he’s shown promise in the preseason and fits Atlanta’s prototype on the edge.
DT - 5
Most of the major players in the DT group return in 2020, with Grady Jarrett the primary starter at 3T and Tyeler Davison the starting nose tackle. Both were excellent in 2019 and should play fairly similar roles. Second-round pick Marlon Davidson is expected to play mostly on the interior, and should provide a pass rushing presence next to Jarrett that the team has lacked in recent years. Second-year player John Cominsky is expected to transition to DT this season and play a similar inside/outside role to Adrian Clayborn—how well he performs on the interior could be one of the keys to pass rushing success in 2020. Former third-round pick Deadrin Senat appears to be in the doghouse with the coaching staff, but I’d still be a little shocked to see him cut after looking promising when on the field.
LB - 5
Arguably the weakest overall position group on the roster at this point, the Falcons have a ton of question marks behind star LB Deion Jones. Foyesade Oluokun appears to be the obvious starter on the weakside, but he’ll need to improve in coverage over a lackluster 2019. Rookie Mykal Walker is a very similar player to De’Vondre Campbell and is probably the favorite to start at SAM, but who knows how well he’ll adjust to the NFL. He’s versatile and can play anywhere he’s needed, which help his chances. XFL standout Edmond Robinson brings excellent size to the position and will also be in the mix to start at SAM. Veteran LaRoy Reynolds will likely be a special teams captain and provide leadership to a very young overall group, but he’s best suited to a depth role.
CB - 5
The CB group got a huge injection of talent with the addition of first-round pick A.J. Terrell, who is already the favorite to start on the outside opposite Isaiah Oliver. Oliver struggled through the first half of 2019 at CB2, but improved measurably in the second half. He’ll be relied upon at the other outside starting spot, and how well these two perform in 2020 will likely make or break Atlanta’s defense. The strongest CB on the roster might actually be second-year player Kendall Sheffield, who looked very good in the slot in 2019. He’ll reprise that role in 2020 and can hopefully help bring stability to the position.
Veteran Blidi Wreh-Wilson is a versatile depth piece who can play on the inside or outside, and is a reliable spot starter when needed. Josh Hawkins is a speedy CB (reported 4.39 40-yard dash time) with 32 games of NFL experience and an impressive stretch in the XFL (4 PDs and 2 INTs in just 5 games)—he’s easily the most reliable depth piece of the available options. Jordan Miller is suspended for the first three games of the 2020 NFL season and will not count against the 53-man roster until he returns.
S - 5
SS Keanu Neal
SS Jaylinn Hawkins
FS Damontae Kazee
FS Ricardo Allen
S Chris Cooper
The safety group remains unchanged at the top in 2020. SS Keanu Neal and some combination of Damontae Kazee and Ricardo Allen at FS will form the starting tandem, with the other likely playing a significant role in “big nickel” sets. Rookie Jaylinn Hawkins figures to be the primary backup to Neal and should be an upgrade there over the multitude of free agents the team has trotted out over the years. The battle for the fifth safety spot will probably be fierce, but I’ll give the edge to Chris Cooper. Cooper has managed to hang around the team for several years and offers positional versatility. Plus, Quinn seems to have some sort of issue with Sharrod Neasman—who probably should be the fifth safety.
SPECIALISTS - 3
K Younghoe Koo
P Sterling Hofrichter
LS Josh Harris
So far, the Falcons haven’t brought in anyone to compete with Younghoe Koo for the starting kicker job. Koo was very good overall, successfully kicking 88.5% of FGs and 93.8% of XPs in 2019. He was a bit lacking at longer attempts, with just 1 kick from greater than 50 yards and 2 misses between 40-49 yards. He also handled kickoffs and was surprisingly excellent at conducting onside kicks.
Despite the presence of veteran Ryan Allen, the Falcons drafted punter Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh round. For whatever reason, the team seems pretty lukewarm on Allen, having tried to replace him multiple times over the past season. Allen was solid in 2019, but I’d be surprised if Hofrichter didn’t win the job. He was an excellent punter at Syracuse, and will be a lot younger and cheaper. Meanwhile, LS Josh Harris returns unopposed for another season. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
PRACTICE SQUAD - 12
QB Danny Etling - I expect the Falcons to keep Danny Etling around—they do seem to like him—but I’d be shocked if he beat out Benkert for the QB2 role.
RB Craig Reynolds - I don’t know much about Reynolds, other than the fact that he spent the 2019 season on the practice squad. The Falcons didn’t bring in any UDFA RBs, so they must feel pretty settled with their group—including Reynolds returning to the squad.
WR Christian Blake - Blake just misses the cut for the roster with his role likely being filled by free agent addition Laquon Treadwell. Treadwell provides a little more size and upside, but the team likes Blake enough to keep him close.
WR Brandon Powell - I don’t know enough about the other UDFA receivers to predict any of them making the practice squad at this point. The team liked Powell enough to keep him around through 2019, and he’ll be a main competitor for the returner role.
TE Carson Meier - A fixture on the 2019 practice squad, Carson Meier returns to continue to develop in 2020.
G Sean Harlow - I want to believe the Falcons will finally move on from Sean Harlow, who has looked abysmal in every preseason game despite sticking around on the roster/practice squad since 2017. But we all know the truth.
T Hunter Atkinson - A local prospect who played at Georgia State, Atkinson was a two-time All-Conference selection at LT. He’s very athletic due to his history as a TE and could be the next OT the Falcons attempt to develop on the practice squad.
EDGE Austin Edwards - The Falcons didn’t bring in many UDFAs on the defensive line, but the most intriguing among them was Austin Edwards. Edwards is an average athlete, but managed to rack up impressive production through effort and competitiveness.
DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner - The infusion of talent at DT in the draft might be enough to push Tuioti-Mariner back off the roster, but the team will likely try to keep him close by on the practice squad.
LB Bryson Young - A dark horse to wind up as the starting SAM, Oregon LB Bryson Young played a hybrid EDGE/LB role and turned in a strong senior season. It’s more likely he’ll wind up on the practice squad, but he has potential.
CB Rojesterman Farris II - Definitely the best name among all the UDFAs, Farris has the size the Falcons look for and was excellent a breaking up passes in both 2018 and 2019. He’s got some competition, but has a good shot at making the squad.
S Jamal Carter - The Falcons didn’t bring in any UDFA safeties, so they’ll likely try to stash Jamal Carter on the squad again this season. Carter appeared in a few games for Atlanta and was OK, but he’s clearly got room to develop.
Alright, there you have it. My entirely-too-early 2020 roster projection. What are your thoughts on this potential squad for Atlanta? Any players that you’d move around? Any free agents you think the Falcons will sign in the coming months?