We are hurtling toward Falcons roster cuts, whether we’re ready for that or not. While the starters on this team feel pretty settled more or less across the board, there are still some questions about how the team will stack its depth chart that have yet to be answered and remain interesting.
I thought we’d dive into three of those today, so come along for the ride! It’ll be fun. I think.
1) Who, exactly, is backing up Matt Ryan?
My guess is that the Falcons will carry Matt Schaub and put Kurt Benkert on the practice squad, while Kevin Knight predicted both would make the roster. Even that uncertainty was made more uncertain by the addition of former Giants quarterback Kyle Lauletta.
Lauletta is a former 4th round selection for the Giants and a guy some thought could be groomed to replace Eli Manning, as absurd as that sounds in hindsight. He’s not gifted with a great arm but he was a pretty good, pretty accurate passer at Richmond, but in two games in the NFL he’s managed to go 0-5 with an interception and has been cut by both the Giants and Eagles. He’s just 25 years old and he’s got that John Parker Wilson shine, so I guess I can understand the Falcons interest in him as a developmental option.
The timing raises questions, though. The Falcons have either decided they don’t want to keep one of Schaub or Benkert, decided to keep both and realized that meant they have a practice squad spot, or are planning to bump Benkert to the practice squad but want a third quarterback on the active roster. Any way you slice it, the team is probably not signing Lauletta less than a week before cuts because they just want to see how pretty he looks slinging the football, which means he’s either on the roster or the practice squad.
This bears watching because it could have real ramifications on Benkert’s future with the team, in particular.
2) Is Brian Hill truly the #2 running back?
The Falcons have talked up Hill all offseason again while remaining coy about where he’ll end up in the team’s pecking order. At this point, I think it’s more than fair to assume that Todd Gurley is starting and Qadree Ollison is the #4 back, which makes it a two-man rumble for the backup gig between Hill and Ito Smith.
My assumption all offseason has been that a healthy Ito is the guy. He was balling a year ago until he got hurt, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and scooping up 11 of his 14 targets in 7 games as a lightly-used complement to Devonta Freeman, and his rushing and receiving ability is not in question.
Hill has done solid work with the Falcons, too, but seemed more like a direct replacement for Gurley when the gifted back can’t play than an obvious complement to him. The Falcons keep talking him up, however, and there’s no denying that he’s steadily improved and pushed hard for playing time despite being cut and other such setbacks.
If you've been following #Falcons training camp, you've heard Brian Hill's name often. That's because the running back went from being cut by 2 different teams to having a shot to be Atlanta's No. 2 option at the position.— Kelsey Conway (@FalconsKelsey) September 2, 2020
How did he do it? He explains: https://t.co/3fZOAJ2PeA pic.twitter.com/NkJEpvdMos
Could Hill be the nominal #2 back, ahead of Ito Smith on the depth chart and perhaps used more often? That will likely depend on just how heavy a workload the Falcons plan to give to Gurley, but it’s an intriguing thought for a player who is actually younger than both Gurley and Smith.
3) Who’s landing the final DL 1-2 spots?
This is not the most impactful question we’ll ask, but it’s maybe the most interesting to me.
The Falcons have virtually locked in Takk McKinley, Dante Fowler Jr., Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davison, Marlon Davidson, Steven Means, Allen Bailey, and John Cominsky for 2020 roster spots, giving the team a solid eight man group. Whether they keep 9 or 10 players, however, the last spot or two on this line looks deeply unsettled.
Charles Harris the obvious favorite for one of them, given that the Falcons went out and traded for him, but the relatively quiet summer he’s spent in Atlanta and the fact that some analysts are leaving him off their projected rosters does give me pause. Remember, while Harris was a former first round selection, he never did much in Miami and would presumably need to do more than look the part to make this roster. I have him penciled in on my roster, but I wouldn’t say it’s a lock.
Then there’s Deadrin Senat. The former Falcons third round pick has not, to my disappointment, been afforded many opportunities to shine in Atlanta, despite looking like a deeply intriguing player coming out of college. The team’s commitment to burying Senat on the depth chart was clear when they signed Tyeler Davison, when they drafted John Cominsky with the idea of moving him inside, and then drafted Marlon Davidson with the idea of providing a complement to Grady Jarrett, all of which serves to make him no better than the fifth defensive tackle on the roster. I still believe in Senat’s talent, but if they keep him around this year it’s not clear how he’s supposed to find his way to playing time when the opportunities remain so slim.
Finally, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner is here and looms as a very reasonable bet for a spot. He’s shown himself to be a capable run defender when called upon, can play inside and outside, and can be a useful special teams player if he’s asked to be. Harris and Senat probably have more upside, but given what you’re asking the last man on your defensive line to do, Tuioti-Mariner might be the most reasonable addition. We just don’t know which way the team is leaning right now.