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Key roster battles on offense heading into Falcons mandatory minicamp

Minicamp won’t decide any of these battles, but you’ll want to keep a close eye on them throughout June, July and August.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons Rookie Minicamp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory minicamp won’t decide a single position battle, but it will be a mile marker on the road to resolving all of them. This offseason has swung wildly between new general manager and coach talk, draft talk, and trade drama, but we’re all eager to actually see this team on the field and figure out the extent to which this spring and summer’s sweeping changes will translate into a less miserable Falcons viewing experience.

Let’s talk about what’s ahead, then, starting with some interesting and lively roster battles on offense that we can track throughout June, July and August.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Reserve running backs

Contenders: Qadree Ollison, Cordarrelle Patterson, Javian Hawkins, Tony Brooks-James, Caleb Huntley

Open spots: 2-3

I’m fully expecting Mike Davis to be at least the nominal starter in 2021, so everyone behind him is competing for reserve roles. I would fully expect Patterson to act as something like the team’s third running back and sixth receiver, as well, so you can go ahead and put his name down in pen here.

That leaves 1-2 open spots on the roster, plus a likely practice squad spot, for Ollison, Hawkins, Brooks-James and Huntley, barring any summer signings. Ollison is a holdover from the last front office and coaching staff, but on paper his physicality and straight line speed should make him a good fit for Arthur Smith’s offense, which enabled Derrick Henry to run over, through, and ultimately past everyone, and which will hope to do the same for Mike Davis and his quasi-legendary quads. I’d consider Hawkins and Huntley stronger bets for a spot than Brooks-James, and Hawkins ultimately the strongest bet because of the team’s obvious interest in and praise for his speed, an element that this backfield could use more of. If it shakes out this way, Huntley ought to end up on the practice squad.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Reserve receivers

Contenders: Olamide Zaccheaus, Tajae Sharpe, Christian Blake, Frank Darby, Chris Rowland, Juwan Green, Antonio Nunn, Austin Trammell, Greg Dortch

Open spots: 2-4

We don’t know how many receivers Atlanta will keep, but 5-6 feels like a safe bet. The question is whether Julio Jones will be among the starters here, because if not Atlanta’s either got to go get another option in free agency or elevate someone like Sharpe or Darby to the starting lineup.

Coradarrelle Patterson figures to get some run as a receiving option, perhaps obviating the need for this team to keep 6 or 7 receivers just to feel good about their depth. With Patterson expected to lock down the kick returner job and Avery Williams looking like a strong contender for the punt returner gig in the early going, the Falcons won’t necessarily wind up holding on to a receiver just to have a returner, as they did with a surprisingly touchdown-happy Brandon Powell a year ago.

In light of that, I’d expect Darby, Zaccheaus and either Blake or Sharpe to emerge as the reserve options here, with Rowland and possibly Nunn hitting the practice squad. Darby is a player our draft analysts love because of his potential prowess as a deep threat, Sharpe has ties to Arthur Smith from 2019, and Zaccheaus is just a fun player whose speed and habit of pulling down thrilling long touchdowns from Matt Ryan should make him intriguing to the staff.

Rowland’s obvious talent in the return game is worth a longer look even if Patterson is blocking one of his routes to a job this summer for 2021, in my humble opinion. If Julio’s gone, you may see Blake and Sharpe both make it.

NFL: Preseason-Washington Redskins at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Left guard

Contenders: Jalen Mayfield, Josh Andrews, Matt Gono, Drew Dalman, Matt Hennessy, Willie Wright, Willie Beavers, Ryan Neuzil, Bryce Hargrove, Joe Sculthorpe

Open spots: 1

This might be the most interesting battle of them all, and we discussed this morning how Josh Andrews is getting some early push as the most veteran option. The reality is that this likely won’t be settled until late in the summer, given both the number of options and the lack of a true standout option in the group.

We are talking about at least 10 options for one spot, though Dalman and Hennessy are here more as afterthoughts given that they’ll primarily be competing at center, and Gono may wind up slotting in at tackle when the dust settles. Mayfield, Gono and Andrews feel like the early trio to watch, but Neuzil and Hargrove are legitimately interesting, athletic undrafted free agents who could push their way into the conversation.

Given that Atlanta’s going to have first-year starters or (frankly) uninspiring veteran stopgaps at both left guard and center unless they hit free agency later this summer, my hope is that these will be spirited competitions where a quality option emerges. My early money is still on Mayfield, but we should keep an eye on whether the Falcons continue to push Andrews as the first man up at left guard at practice once younger players get their feet under them.

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Center

Contenders: Matt Hennessy, Drew Dalman

Open spots: 1

There will be others competing here, as well, but in the end I expect this is essentially a two man joust.

Hennessy was drafted by the last regime to be the team’s center of the future, and his scuffles at left guard and decentish stint as the center late in 2020 suggest he has the upside to be that guy with time and effort. Dalman was drafted to compete with him because:

  • The Falcons like Dalman
  • They clearly are not convinced Hennessy should just be handed the job

I’d consider Hennessy the favorite today, given that he’s still talented, has a bit more experience, and is still a good fit for this scheme. Dalman is a polished player who will give him a run for his money, though, and Atlanta can feel comfortable they’ll have quality depth at center no matter who wins.

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Backup quarterback

Contenders: A.J. McCarron, Feleipe Franks

Open spots: 1

This one’s last because it’s likely to be least. The Falcons will probably go with McCarron as their backup, given his experience as a clipboard holder and holder on field goals, with Franks spending a year on the practice squad hoping to develop and challenge for the job in 2022.

There’s at least a little intrigue here, though, given that Franks has the arm and mobility to be interesting in the NFL. It’d take a superlative summer for him to steal the job away from McCarron, but the talent is there for him to make things interesting if he can iron out the many decision-making flaws that held him back in college.


Which battles are you most looking forward to tracking this summer?