We’re approaching the beginning of training camp—which is terrific news! That means it’s time for my pre-camp 53-man roster projection, where I take my best shot at predicting the Falcons’ final roster heading into Week 1. Normally, these projections would change significantly with news from OTAs, minicamps, and other team activities. But in the wake of COVID-19, we’ve had...none of that. That makes an accurate prediction very difficult at this stage.
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 to 16, and 6 of those players will be eligible with any amount of experience. This will be a COVID-specific change, as far as we know, and practice squads will likely revert back to 12 members with the usual restrictions in 2021. Also important to note are the COVID-related IR changes, which won’t impact my roster projections but could change how teams deal with injuries this season.
With those rule clarifications out of the way, let’s dive in to my second 53-man roster projection of the 2020 offseason.
Italics indicate a change from my previous roster projection, which you can find here.
OFFENSE - 25
QB - 2
Matt Ryan will be the Falcons’ starting QB in 2020. I hope you’re not shocked by that.
I’ve been extremely hopeful that Kurt Benkert could seize control of the backup QB job this season. He’s got the talent for it, and had a real shot at it in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury in the preseason. However, with the lack of on-field activity to this point, the lack of preseason, and everything else going on with COVID-19, I’m just not sure that Atlanta will feel comfortable handing the backup QB job to a young player like Benkert. That means that Matt Schaub is likely to retain his job for one more season—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Schaub played extremely well when called upon in 2019.
RB/FB - 5
RB Todd Gurley
RB Brian Hill
RB Ito Smith
RB Qadree Ollison
FB Keith Smith
Todd Gurley appears healthy—at least, as far as we can tell—heading into training camp, and he’ll take on the lead role in 2020 for the Falcons. Behind him, I expect a committee approach. Brian Hill will likely take the second-most carries and be the primarily backup for Gurley. Ito Smith is arguably the best receiver of the group and should have a role on passing downs and situations. Qadree Ollison is likely to be a gameday inactive most weeks if the others are healthy, but proved he’s a valuable short-yardage and TD-scoring option in 2019.
Keith Smith returns to the team on a multi-year extension, and figures to have a small role in the offense but a substantial one on special teams. Smith was responsible for an incredible 3 forced fumbles on special teams in 2019, and was a force as a tackler. His background as a LB has helped him become one of Atlanta’s best special teamers.
WR - 6
The Falcons have a lot of talent at WR and always bring in an intriguing crop of UDFAs to make things interesting in camp. Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Russell Gage will man the top-3 spots without question. Behind them, free agent addition Laquon Treadwell adds some size and physicality to the unit while second-year UDFA Olamide Zaccheaus adds electric speed and playmaking potential.
With the aforementioned lack of OTAs and no preseason, the chances for any UDFA to make the squad are pretty low. However, I still like Tennessee State’s Chris Rowland’s ability to earn a roster spot as the primary punt/kick returner. His athletic traits and skill with the ball in his hands give him a leg up over veteran Brandon Powell, who has thus far failed to make much of a mark at returner in the NFL in his short NFL career.
TE - 3
It’ll be exciting to see how trade-addition Hayden Hurst does in a full-time starting role. We know Dirk Koetter loves to target the TE, and Hurst should have a significant role in the offense as a slightly more athletic version of Austin Hooper. Second-year UDFA Jaeden Graham impressed fans and the coaching staff with his ability to stretch the field as a receiver in 2019—his potential and experience in the scheme likely make his roster spot safe. It’ll be a tough decision for the Falcons between veteran XFL standout Khari Lee—who is an excellent blocker with NFL experience—and UDFA Jared Pinkney, who has intriguing traits as a receiver but had a down year in 2019 at Vanderbilt. Due to COVID-19 limiting opportunities for Pinkney and the lack of blocking options on the roster, I’m giving the nod to Lee.
OL - 9
LT Jake Matthews
LG Jamon Brown
C Alex Mack
RG Chris Lindstrom
RT Kaleb McGary
C/G Matt Hennessy
G James Carpenter
G/T Matt Gono
G/T Justin McCray
The Falcons should have a vastly improved offensive line in 2020...if everyone can stay healthy and we see improvement from second-year players Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary on the right side. I’m not concerned in the slightest about Lindstrom, who came on strong towards the end of the season, but McGary was very up-and-down—particularly as a pass blocker. McGary’s 13 sacks allowed and 53.0 overall PFF grade will simply not be good enough in 2020.
Elsewhere, the Falcons still have two reliable stalwarts in LT Jake Matthews and C Alex Mack. The big question is at LG, where veterans Jamon Brown, James Carpenter, and Justin McCray will battle it out with rookie Matt Hennessy for the starting job. My money is on Brown, who is younger and has more upside than Carpenter, to be the Week 1 starter.
Hennessy is slated to be the primary backup at center behind Mack, where he can hopefully learn from one of the NFL’s best at his position in 2020. Exceptional UDFA Matt Gono looks like a shoe-in at swing tackle, as the Falcons brought in very little competition to push him. In an unsettled environment due to COVID-19, I’d expect the Falcons to carry an additional veteran OL. Both James Carpenter and Justin McCray have enough value and versatility to stick around.
DEFENSE - 25
EDGE - 5
Dante Fowler Jr.
All our hopes for the EDGE group rest with big free agent addition Dante Fowler and disappointing 2017 first-round pick Takk McKinley. Fowler should provide stability and high-end production to a unit that has lacked it for years, while McKinley should finally have a quality running mate to give him favorable matchups. Allen Bailey will be the primary strongside defender who will stuff the run and perhaps play some on the interior. Steven Means is a reliable veteran who can rush the passer and stop the run at a solid level. The final spot is likely to come down to another disappointing 2017 first-round pick in Charles Harris and former UDFA Austin Larkin. Harris probably has the slight edge due to his upside, but Larkin played well in the 2019 preseason and could be a legitimate challenger.
DT - 5
The DT group remains very similar to 2019 outside of one big addition: second-round pick Marlon Davidson. Davidson is likely to be a primary pass rusher and can also play on the edge if needed. Grady Jarrett will once again man 3T, with Tyeler Davison starting at NT in the base defense. Second-year player John Cominsky should be in line for larger role as a pass-rushing specialist—think Jack Crawford’s role in the rotation. Meanwhile, former third-round pick Deadrin Senat should make the team as Davison’s backup, but his status is largely a mystery due to the coaching staff’s unwillingness to play him.
LB - 5
The names at the top haven’t changed since the draft, with Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun manning the starting LB slots. Rookie Mykal Walker should have the first crack at SAM, and his versatility to backup multiple spots adds to his value. Recent free agent addition Deone Bucannon is a big boost to the depth of this unit, as he’s a good fit in the scheme and offers a veteran backup to Jones and Oluokun. The fifth spot is likely to come down to XFL standout Edmond Robinson—who has excellent athleticism and size—and veteran special teamer LaRoy Reynolds. I’m giving the edge to Robinson due to his upside and size, which the Falcons largely lack outside of Walker.
CB - 5
The most concerning unit on the roster, CB has suffered an enormous amount of attrition over the past two seasons. After losing two starters in Robert Alford and Brian Poole in 2019, the Falcons jettisoned Desmond Trufant this offseason. That leaves third-year player Isaiah Oliver as one presumptive starter on the outside, with first-round pick A.J. Terrell manning the other side. Second-year CB Kendall Sheffield will once again start in the slot, where he had flashes of brilliance and frustration.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson should be a shoe-in for the roster once more in 2020 as a reliable depth piece who can play anywhere in the secondary. Among the other CBs, I give the edge to Josh Hawkins—another XFL standout who has several years of experience in the NFL. 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 Ricardo Allen
FS Damontae Kazee
S Sharrod Neasman
The safety group remains largely unchanged from 2019 except for the addition of fourth-round pick Jaylinn Hawkins, who is the favorite to be Keanu Neal’s primary backup at strong safety. We will all hope that Neal can return to full health in 2020 and give us another excellent season. Ricardo Allen will compete with Damontae Kazee for the starting FS role, but I’d expect both to play significant snaps in 3-safety “big nickel” sets. Behind them, my favorite depth option is former UDFA Sharrod Neasman—who has been solid at worst when called upon to play. However, the coaching staff seems to have an issue with playing him, so they could very well go in a different direction at roster cuts.
SPECIALISTS - 3
K Younghoe Koo
P Ryan Allen
LS Josh Harris
The Falcons have talked about bringing in competition for kicker Younghoe Koo, but so far we haven’t seen any signings. That means he’s almost certainly safe for 2020, particularly with the lack of preseason to meaningfully test a competitor. There will be a battle for the punter job between veteran Ryan Allen—who played well in 2019 when healthy—and rookie Sterling Hofrichter. Normally I’d give the edge to Hofrichter due to his age and low cost, but the team may feel more comfortable with a veteran due to everything going on with COVID-19. Meanwhile, LS Josh Harris returns once again. He’s good at what he does and that’s all we really need to know.
What are your thoughts on this pre-camp roster projection? Any players or position numbers you’d tweak? Do you think any UDFAs will make the roster in 2020 without a preseason to show off their skills?