Nothing about 2020 is unfolding the way we might’ve hoped or expected, including the NFL season. Falcons are hitting the COVID-19 list seemingly left and right, players are opting out across the league, and the worst is likely yet to come, given that teams haven’t spent that much time together and nobody’s played an actual game in front of tens of thousands of fans just yet. We’re all still hopeful the league can pull this thing off, but obviously there’s a lot of question marks still to be answered.
One of the big ones for Atlanta concerns roster construction, and William McFadden at AtlantaFalcons.com had a really interesting piece on that the other day where he talked to Dan Quinn about how that’s going to work in the age of COVID-19. You’ll definitely want to read this, but I’ve pulled out a couple of big picture takeaways for your consideration.
The first is the suggestion that the team might keep more cornerbacks and wide receivers than usual, either on the practice squad available to be called up when needed, on the active roster, or both. That’s because as Quinn notes, there’s so much running at those positions that injuries are a real concern, plus the ever-present threat of COVID-19.
“One thing I think you have to think about outside, that’s a position – wide receivers, corners – the amount of running that’s going to take place in training camp, soft-tissue injuries are something that are legitimate to talk about,” Quinn explained. “It’s a difficult process to add players onto a roster. In the past, when you’ve covered a team, ‘Hey, the injury bug hit tight end,’ or ‘hit this group and they’re out,’ it’s a good while to get that position back up. In the past, ‘Hey, we’re going to release another player to add to that (group).’ That really won’t be the case this year because it could take five, six or seven days to get the next player in at that position.”
The lag time is an interesting note that I hadn’t considered, but with testing and everything going on it makes sense. Teams suddenly can’t afford to go thin at positions where they don’t have the strongest depth, and DQ’s comments make it evident that we should expect the team to stack up some depth at cornerback (Chris Cooper and Jordan Miller, for example) and wide receiver (Chris Rowland, Christian Blake, Devin Gray, etc.). Fortunately, they do have options at both spots.
The other note—something we sort of anticipated—is that the practice squad might be more of a veteran group than in years past. As McFadden notes, the Falcons have done a nice job of nurturing and ultimately playing practice squad guys in recent years, but they’ll have to strike more of a balance this year between guys they like over the long haul and players they may need midseason.
Under Quinn, the Falcons have prioritized developing younger players on the practice squad. Players like wide receiver Christian Blake and defensive tackle Jacob Tuioti-Mariner started out on the practice squad before earning roles on Sundays. That approach might change this year, however, if, as Quinn said, the Falcons prioritize players who could be short-term substitutes if a player must be isolated.
I tried to account for that in my practice squad projection the other day, but the reality is that probably even the Falcons don’t have a concrete idea of where they’re going to take this thing when the season arrives. Atlanta’s got to balance a desire to develop players—it’s a core piece of the Dan Quinn philosophy, and it’s yielded useful reserves at multiple positions—with a desire to make sure they’re covered in case someone is suddenly on the reserve/COVID-19 list for a few weeks.
I don’t envy the team that task, but how they handle it will take on outsized importance in 2020. It’s good to get some idea of where Quinn is leaning, but we’re weeks away from finding out what this practice squad and roster are going to look like, and whose absence they have to account for.