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Falcons 53-man roster projection: Final Edition

Final cuts are coming on Saturday, which means it’s time for one last 53-man roster projection. How have things changed since the beginning of training camp? Will any UDFAs make it this year despite the lack of preseason?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Training camp is almost over, with final roster cuts coming on Saturday. It’s been a weird time, with no preseason games for players to show off their skills and only limited information coming out of Flowery Branch. In many ways, this will be the most difficult roster to predict in recent history. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to try!

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 third and final 53-man roster projection of the 2020 offseason.

Italics indicate a change from my previous roster projections: Post-draft, Pre-camp.

OFFENSE - 25

QB - 3

Matt Ryan
Matt Schaub
Kurt Benkert

You shouldn’t be shocked to see Matt Ryan at the top of the QB depth chart, and his placement there doesn’t require any commentary. Behind him, there’s some debate about who the QB2 should be: the reliable veteran Matt Schaub, entering his age 39 season; or the developmental option in Kurt Benkert, who has flashed at times but has little in the way of meaningful NFL experience. The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and it’s potential to affect the 2020 season might mean that the answer is...both of them. Benkert is the long-term option, while Schaub would still be the preferred backup for this season.

RB/FB - 5

RB Todd Gurley
RB Brian Hill
RB Ito Smith
RB Qadree Ollison

FB Keith Smith

No change to this group heading into the season—it might be the easiest to predict of any on the roster. Gurley will headline the group and take the majority of the carries when healthy, while a committee of Brian Hill, Ito Smith, and Qadree Ollison will handle the rest. I’d expect Ollison to be a gameday inactive when Gurley is healthy, with Hill spelling Gurley for early-down work and Smith the primary passing-down option.

Keith Smith received a lucrative extension, so it seems the team has an expanded role in mind for him heading into 2020. His biggest contributions might come on special teams, however, as he graded out as one of Atlanta’s best in 2019.

WR - 6

Julio Jones
Calvin Ridley
Russell Gage
Olamide Zaccheaus
Laquon Treadwell
Chris Rowland

The top-3 have basically been written in pen since the start of the offseason, with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley the unquestioned outside starters and Russell Gage the primary option in the slot. Behind them, it was basically an open contest to impress the coaching staff. Olamide Zaccheaus has the edge on WR4 due to his previous experience with the team. While Laquon Treadwell has apparently failed to make much of an impact in camp, he’s still probably the favorite for WR5 due to his pedigree and size—though Christian Blake could wind up beating him out. UDFA Chris Rowland, by all reports, is the most impressive of the returners, and wins the final roster spot as a result.

TE - 3

Hayden Hurst
Jaeden Graham
Luke Stocker

The top two options on this list probably haven’t changed over the course of training camp, with Hayden Hurst the unquestioned starter and former UDFA Jaeden Graham the secondary option. However, the re-signing of Luke Stocker signaled that the team may have been unimpressed by Khari Lee and/or UDFA Jared Pinkney. Stocker takes over the TE3 spot and will likely reprise his role as a primary blocker and tertiary receiving option.

OL - 8

LT Jake Matthews
LG Matt Hennessy
C Alex Mack
RG Chris Lindstrom
RT Kaleb McGary

C/G Justin McCray
G/T Matt Gono
G James Carpenter

With Jamon Brown gone and James Carpenter failing to impress, it appears that the starting 5 on the offensive line have been officially set. Rookie Matt Hennessy seems to have won the battle, and we’ll hope that means he’s been legitimately impressive—and not that the veteran options were awful. Otherwise, the unit remains unchanged from 2019: Jake Matthews at LT, Alex Mack at C, Chris Lindstrom at RG, and Kaleb McGary at RT. We’ll hope for continued improvement from McGary this season and a return to full health for Lindstrom.

With the Falcons keeping 3 QBs, they have to make a cut somewhere on offense—and that cut is on the offensive line. With the team electing to keep just 8 players, versatility will be key. Justin McCray appears to have impressed the coaching staff enough to make him the primary interior backup, as he’s reportedly the #2 center despite never playing the position before. Matt Gono will handle the swing tackle role and also offers versatility at guard. James Carpenter will stick around due to his cap cost, but seems to have been the least impressive of the bunch in camp.

DEFENSE - 25

EDGE - 5

Dante Fowler Jr.
Takkarist McKinley
Allen Bailey
Steven Means
Charles Harris

The EDGE group remains unchanged from earlier in the offseason. Dante Fowler and Takkarist McKinley will be the headliners of this group, and there’s a fair amount of depth behind them. Allen Bailey will play a versatile inside/outside role, but he’ll be a fixture in the base package defense. Steven Means has shown he can play against both the run and pass as a rotational player, assuming he’s back to full health after his 2019 injury. Charles Harris is a solid depth option, but I wouldn’t expect anything more than that from the former first-rounder.

DT - 4

Grady Jarrett
Tyeler Davison
Marlon Davidson
John Cominsky

DT is one of the harder positions to predict at this point due to the presence of some impressive UDFAs and the poor performance of former third-rounder Deadrin Senat. The top four spots are basically written in pen at this point: Grady Jarrett is a star, Tyeler Davison is the team’s primary run stuffer, Marlon Davidson is a 2020 second-round pick, and John Cominsky has been one of the most impressive players at camp. Behind them, the answer for who makes the roster might actually be...nobody. Senat seems to need a fresh start elsewhere, while the Falcons might feel they can stash the UDFAs on the practice squad.

LB - 5

Deion Jones
Foyesade Oluokun
Mykal Walker
Deone Bucannon
LaRoy Reynolds

The LB position looks significantly better heading into the season than it did after the draft. Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun will be the two primary starters, with impressive rookie Mykal Walker playing a substantial role as the base package SAM—and probably also rotating in to other packages. Deone Bucannon joins the unit as an athletic depth piece and special teamer. It’s a legitimately tough call between the upside of Edmond Robinson and the special teams acumen of LaRoy Reynolds. Recent reports of the team highly valuing Reynolds’ leadership ability leads me to give him the slight edge here.

CB - 6

A.J. Terrell
Darqueze Dennard
Isaiah Oliver
Kendall Sheffield
Blidi Wreh-Wilson
Josh Hawkins

Jordan Miller

Another unit that looks significantly better now than it did after the draft, the Falcons might have a legitimately impressive CB corps in 2020. A.J. Terrell has been one of the best players at camp, which is what you want to hear about your first-round pick. Free agent addition Darqueze Dennard adds a veteran presence to the starting lineup who can lock down the slot in a way that hasn’t been possible for years. Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield will likely rotate at the other outside CB spot depending on the matchup.

For depth, Atlanta has the reliable Blidi Wreh-Wilson—who is capable of lining up just about anywhere and has been a solid starter when called upon. With such a young secondary, I think the Falcons will keep a sixth option for depth purposes. XFL standout Josh Hawkins makes the roster due to his athleticism and NFL experience—though he could find himself cut in Week 4 to make room for the suspended Jordan Miller.

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 prior to Week 4.

S - 5

SS Keanu Neal
SS J.J. Wilcox

FS Ricardo Allen
FS Damontae Kazee

S Jaylinn Hawkins

Much depends on Keanu Neal’s health in the safety group, as he seems to be one of the primary catalysts for Atlanta’s defensive success. The Falcons have made a concerted effort to improve the depth behind him, however, adding veteran J.J. Wilcox in free agency and drafting Jaylinn Hawkins. With Hawkins missing time due to COVID, it seems Wilcox might be the first man up behind Neal. At FS, the team has two legitimate starting options in Ricardo Allen and Damontae Kazee. It seems the two have been used interchangeably during camp, although Kazee seems to be the slight favorite to play more snaps. Both will play significant roles in the secondary in 2020.

SPECIALISTS - 3

K Younghoe Koo

P Sterling Hofrichter

LS Josh Harris

Well, I was clearly wrong in my last prediction about multiple things. First off, the team never brought in any competition for Younghoe Koo—so he’s locked up the kicking job for the foreseeable future. Second, the team cut Ryan Allen early in training camp—signaling an enormous amount of trust in rookie punter Sterling Hofrichter. Neither of these things are bad, just a bit surprising given the uncertainty around COVID. Long snapper Josh Harris also returns in 2020, and should continue his run as a reliable special teams staple.


PRACTICE SQUAD - 16

PROTECTED - 4

QB Kyle Lauletta
TE Jared Pinkney
OT Evin Ksiezarczyk
*G/T John Wetzel

UNPROTECTED - 12

P Drew Kaser
CB Delrick Abrams
*S Sharrod Neasman
EDGE Austin Edwards
DT Sailosi Latu
*DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
RB/FB Mikey Daniel
*G Sean Harlow
LB Edmond Robinson
*WR Christian Blake
WR Brandon Powell
*TE Khari Lee

It’s almost a fool’s errand trying to predict such a large practice squad, but I’ll give it a try anyway. There are few changes to the practice squad this season: 16 players are allowed instead of 12, 4 players can be “protected” from other teams, and 6 players may have any amount of NFL seasons accrued. I’ve marked players who are the 6 “veterans” with asterisks, though some may not technically qualify.

The Falcons will probably want to protect Kyle Lauletta—who is the emergency QB. By all accounts, the team really lives Evin Ksiezarczyk, so he’s a priority to protect as well. The other two are anyone’s guess, but John Wetzel seems to be a team favorite and Jared Pinkney has enough upside that it might tempt another team to add him.

The rest of the group is pretty straightforward. Atlanta brought in a bunch of punters to find someone to stash on the practice squad, and the most likely choice is Drew Kaser. CB Delrick Abrams seems to have been the most impressive of the UDFA CBs. Sharrod Neasman is a proven special teams and depth player. EDGE Austin Edwards seems like a lock, as the team clearly likes him and there aren’t any other options on the roster. DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner just misses out on the roster, but sticks on the practice squad alongside UDFA Sailosi Latu—who beats out Deadrin Senat to be the de-facto backup NT behind Tyeler Davison.

RB Mikey Daniel seems to have impressed the coaching staff enough to stick around. C/G Sean Harlow has failed to make an NFL impact, but the team seems obsessed with trying to develop him. LB Edmond Robinson just misses out on the roster, but should be the first man up in case of injury. WRs Christian Blake and Brandon Powell just miss the cut, but earn spots on the practice squad. TE Khari Lee is interesting enough to keep around as a potential low-cost blocker for future years.

What are your thoughts on this final roster projection? Any players or position numbers you’d tweak? Do you foresee any surprise outside additions heading into the weekend?