The first week of the NFL season is finally upon us. We’ll see real, live NFL football in just a few days—and Falcons football just a few days after that. It’s an exciting time, particularly with the revelation of Atlanta’s initial 53-man roster over the weekend and the makeup of the practice squad. At last, we have a very strong idea of how the Falcons will look in their first matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.
Our other writers have already touched on the specifics of the roster construction. They’ve also called attention to the fact that Atlanta has the oldest roster in the NFL, and that for the first time in the Dan Quinn era, no rookie UDFAs made the final cut. These developments are all notable, mainly due to the story they tell about the team-building philosophy behind the 2020 Falcons—at least initially.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Falcons are taking a veteran-heavy approach in 2020. For one, the specter of COVID hangs over everything. Teams know they might have to throw depth players into the lineup at a moments notice, which means favoring experienced vets over rookies or young, unproven players. But I don’t believe this is the only reason for the conservative approach to building this version of the Falcons.
I believe Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff know they have to get results this year, and they can’t afford to wait for those results. Another 1-7 start would almost certainly lead to the end of the Quinn-TD regime. While Quinn is willing to trust his draft selections with producing immediately—something he’s done consistently since joining the Falcons—that level of trust no longer appears to extend to UDFAs.
The Falcons erred on the side of veterans or draft selections at every single opportunity in 2020. Veteran receiver Brandon Powell won the returner battle over UDFA Chris Rowland. Deadrin Senat kept his roster spot—despite a reportedly disappointing camp—over UDFA Sailosi Latu. Recently re-signed TE Luke Stocker defeated intriguing UDFA Jared Pinkney.
Perhaps this has more to do with the lack of preseason, minicamps, and other opportunities for the young players to prove themselves, but I doubt it. The drafted rookies all received the same opportunities in a limited training camp, and it appears that 3 have even earned starting jobs heading into Week 1: CB A.J. Terrell, C/G Matt Hennessy, and LB Mykal Walker (at SAM). Obviously UDFAs are always at a disadvantage compared to draft picks, but the discrepancy this year is striking.
It seems this change has been coming for awhile. Dan Quinn has slowly become more and more conservative in his approach to putting young players on the field. Gone are the days of 2016, when the Falcons were totally willing to start a UDFA CB in the slot (Brian Poole) alongside rookies all across the defense. Instead, we now remember the mad dash to find a replacement for Keanu Neal in both 2018 and 2019. Quinn and TD went out of their way to trade for players like Jordan Richards and Johnathan Cyprien instead of playing UDFA Sharrod Neasman—who always turned out to be better than those players when given an opportunity.
Much of this comes with where you are professionally as a head coach. In 2016, Quinn was entering his second year and was still far from the hot seat. Now heading into 2020, Quinn is coming off two disappointing seasons and is several years removed from postseason contention. In truth, both Quinn and Dimitroff are right to be conservative in their approach—they are very clearly on the hot seat—but it’s interesting to see how that lack of security has affected their team-building approach.
Then again, the Falcons have gotten off to slow starts that crippled their ability to contend for the playoffs over the past few years. Perhaps it’s smart to try a different strategy with regards to team-building, particularly due to the poor injury luck Atlanta has experienced in recent history. For fans—and for Arthur Blank—all that matters is how many wins the team can generate in 2020, and how much success they can have in the postseason.
On that note, I do believe this is one of the strongest rosters the Falcons have fielded in the Dan Quinn era. Early returns on the 2020 rookie class seem to be quite positive, at least from what we’ve heard in camp. After a disastrous free agency period in 2019, the 2020 class—headlined by premier pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr.—looks promising. Maybe a little uncertainty is just what this team, and regime, needed to get things back on track.