In most years, the Falcons build a practice squad out of players they particularly like, without a ton of regard to positions of weakness on the roster. They’ve kept intriguing young guards when they had a pile of veteran guards on the roster, they’ve certainly had their fair share of receivers despite being pretty stacked there, and so on. To the extent that they’ve built a practice squad around specific needs, they haven’t been married to doing so.
Take 2019. The Falcons kept Sean Harlow despite being pretty well stacked up at the interior of the offensive line (at least numbers-wise) because they wanted to develop him. Ditto Christian Blake and Brandon Powell, who were the 7th and 8th receivers after Atlanta kept six on the initial roster. And they kept Jamal Carter and Chris Cooper despite carrying five safeties, assuming you count Kemal Ishmael as a safety, on the active roster. It’s not that they didn’t need these players—Blake and Carter ended up getting real playing time in 2019—but that they tend to not just say “well, we’ve only got four linebackers, so we’d better keep a few options on the practice squad.”
This year, the calculus might change a little bit. Atlanta will still prioritize talent in this rare opportunity to keep 16 players on the practice squad, given that they still have to play football in 2021, 2022, and so on, and the players they keep could develop into options down the line. They also would like to have players on hand who are familiar with the team and can step in when someone inevitably gets COVID and has to miss a couple of weeks.
With that in mind, what do the Falcons pretty much have to have on the practice squad?
- At least one quarterback, if not two. If the Falcons want to keep Matt Schaub for his veteran presence and track record in a weird year, Kurt Benkert and Danny Etling could both hit the practice squad. If Matt Ryan should get COVID-19, Football Gods forbid, the Falcons may want those options.
- A running back. Mikey Daniel and Craig Reynolds are interesting, at minimum, and we can’t be 100% sure Todd Gurley will be 100% all year, to put it mildly. Heck, Qadree Ollison could end up here, depending on how the team constructs its roster.
- Offensive line help. The option to keep players regardless of service time will likely lead the Falcons to stash guys like Harlow and John Wetzel here. Wetzel is a particularly good example because he’s been around a while, has starting experience at multiple spots along the line, and would otherwise presumably be cut and re-signed over and over again until he went mad.
- A veteran cornerback or two. The Falcons are going to roll on with 4-5 super young players and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, but if guys get sick or falter, having a proven option to step in is going to make a difference for this team. The same is true at linebacker, where the proven options beyond Deion Jones don’t exactly exist.
Ultimately, I expect the practice squad to be about a third veterans at positions like cornerback where that might be needed, a third young players at positions of need who shine through this abbreviated summer, and a third players they simply like, regardless of position. However they end up slicing and dicing this thing, having 16 players they’ve hand-selected to be readily available in case of the usual injuries or disappointing campaigns and the specter of COVID-19 will be very welcome.
We’ll be landing an early practice squad projection later this week, so keep an eye out for that, as well.