We still don’t have the Falcons training camp schedule for 2021, but we know that late this month it will be kicking off. That will be a perfect antidote to the sleepiness of the current moment, where it’s been difficult to get amped for Atlanta’s upcoming season even if we expect it to go better than it did in 2020.
It’s also time to start thinking ahead of things like roster cutdowns, with the roster surprises and on-the-bubble veterans that implies. Atlanta’s about a month-and-a-half away from their first required cuts, with the team needing to trim to 85 players on August 17, 80 players on August 24 and all the way down to a 53 man roster on August 31. With a new coaching staff, there’s far more uncertainty than there was a year ago, when you had a feeling some of the players on this list would stick around because they were liked by the coaching staff and were acquired by a regime that had a vested interest in seeing them succeed.
Here are veterans we think may be on the bubble in July and August, and why we think so.
QB A.J. McCarron
I’m not sold on McCarron being the team’s clear cut backup option at quarterback, given that he was hastily signed after the team didn’t draft one of the top options available in April and does not have a rich history of success in the NFL. For all the grief I used to give Matt Schaub for not having had success in recent years before joining the Falcons, he had a long history as a starter and backup who actually got into games to draw on, and had been a good player for a long while. It’s a lot less clear whether McCarron can offer that kind of play in a pinch.
Given that McCarron is easy to cut owing to the structure of his one year deal, so if an attractive backup option shakes loose or Feleipe Franks is unexpectedly great, I think you’ll see a change. McCarron probably needs a strong preseason to lock down this spot.
WR Christian Blake
A favorite of the last coaching staff, Blake spent 2018 bouncing on and off the Falcons practice squad before catching on and sticking in 2019 and 2020. He’s played in a combined 25 games over those two years with 24 catches for 232 yards, including one memorable game against the Saints.
He’s obviously on shakier footing with the coaching staff change. Unlike Olamide Zaccheaus, he does not have the deeply intriguing speed and big play potential, and doesn’t have the strong connections to Arthur Smith and company that new draft pick Frank Darby, quasi-running back Cordarrelle Patterson, and options like Tajae Sharpe have.
It’s very possible he’ll win the staff over and hang on to a job—he’s done it before and has a solid, well-rounded skillset and is capable of playing special teams—but it’s difficult to project him to make it with the level of competition currently on the roster. The same is true of...
WR Chris Rowland
I was disappointed Rowland did not end up winning one of the returner jobs in 2020, given his unreal college production and evident speed, but figured he’d get another chance in 2021. Free agency the draft would seem to have dashed those dreams.
First, the team scooped up Patterson, one of the best kick returners in NFL history and a virtual lock to take that job if he’s healthy. Then they drafted Avery Williams, whose production as a punt returner at Boise State suggests that he’ll have an early lead on that competition as well. I think Rowland is an interesting receiver as well, but he’ll likely have to dazzle both there and as a returner to hang on to a spot this summer. If he does, he could be in line to take over for Patterson next year.
TE Jaeden Graham
On one hand, Graham does have a connection to this coaching staff, as assistant offensive line coach Chandler Henley coached him at Yale. On the other hand, there are three players who figure to be in front of him on the depth chart and two blockers on hand to compete with him in Parker Hesse and Ryan Becker. Given that Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst figure to be the team’s lead options as receivers, Graham might lose a numbers game if Arthur Smith would prefer to have another blocker down the depth chart to pair with Lee Smith. I do expect the team will keep four players at the position, so it’s a question of how Graham does this summer and what Atlanta’s looking for beyond their top three options.
DT Deadrin Senat
I’m sure as soon as you saw the title on this one, you were looking for Senat’s name. He’s probably the most obvious player on the entire list.
The reasoning is obvious: Senat is in the final year of his rookie deal and has struggled to find any kind of role on defense the past two seasons. After playing in 15 games his rookie season back in 2018 and managing a couple of nice plays along the way, he’s gotten into just 7 combined games over the past two seasons. Atlanta evidently decided somewhere along the way that their third round pick in 2018 wasn’t worth playing, but they’ve also kept him, creating a bit of a baffling situation.
With a new coaching staff, it’ll go one of two ways: Either his natural talent wins out and Senat impresses his way into a role, or he’s off the team in favor of new additions like Ta’Quon Graham and Olive Sagapolu. Senat’s career has been such a mystery to this point that I’m not willing to bet either way, even if option #2 seems more likely.
CB Kendall Sheffield
I go back and forth on Sheffield seemingly by the week. He’s coming off an injury-marred, largely forgettable year, but he’s still reasonably young, has two years left on his contract, and still has that intriguing speed. It’s not exactly a stretch to think he might figures some things out and be a useful reserve at minimum with a new coaching staff.
He’s got a ton of competition, though. A.J. Terrell is going to start, Fabian Moreau and Isaiah Oliver figure to push for significant roles, and the team will want to hold on to rookies Darren Hall and Avery Williams. There’s not room for Sheffield there unless he (and you’ll sense a theme here) excels during training camp and preseason.
Who’s missing from this list?