When you have very little cap space, a raft of depth issues and an open competition ethos that you like to talk about, you are the Atlanta Falcons. You also are a prime landing spot for undrafted free agents, and our favorite team brought in more than any other franchise this summer.
The result is that there could be anywhere from one to five undrafted free agents pushing their way on to the final 53 man roster for Atlanta, an outcome that speaks volumes about where this team’s depth is today. It also, though, is a credit to a few impressive undrafted free agents who have made a real case to stick around, and the Falcons could credibly carry a ton of this summer’s class on their practice squad at minimum, given how many have shown impressive flashes in training camp and preseason.
Let’s zero on a handful of UDFAs I believe have a legitimate shot to still make this roster ahead of the third preseason game.
QB Feleipe Franks
For months now, the fact that the Falcons talked about always adding talent at quarterback and their actual approach to quarterback have seemingly been at loggerheads. After the first day of the draft they signed A.J. McCarron, a possible signal they were mulling Trey Lance if he had made it past the 49ers, but from there the only addition they made was former Arkansas and Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks, who went undrafted.
Since then, the team has not budged, and it will take a devastating ACL injury for McCarron to change that. This says something about the financial picture for a team that still has limited cap space, but it also seemingly functions as a statement of belief in McCarron and Franks as the team’s #2 and #3 quarterbacks. For all the rough moments with Franks—he’s not a particularly polished passer yet, and he took a brutal safety against the Dolphins—there is readily evident upside there that makes further development worthwhile.
Josh Rosen is reportedly coming to town, but there’s no guarantee he beats out Franks for a spot on the 53 man roster given the short timeframe we’re talking about and the possibility that they’ll sniff around other passers once other teams make their cuts. Franks obviously had not seized the job to this point, given his very uneven preseason as a passer in particular and Arthur Smith’s repeated belief that McCarron would head into the year as the #2, but the injury changed the calculus here. Rosen gets his own audition for the #2 spot, but Franks now has a shot to impress in the final week of practice and preseason and push his way into the backup role, at least for the start of the season. He’s just not the likeliest guy on this list to make it and stick.
RB Caleb Huntley
One of the most impressive players on offense Saturday night, Huntley led the team in rushing and continues to show the kind of power and burst you want from your backs. He also is factoring in as a blocker, which is a very big deal for any rookie trying to hang on as a reserve.
The 20-yard scramble by Franks in the 2nd qtr was made possible by Caleb Huntley picking up a blitz to prevent a sack and buy the QB more time to improvise. Pass protection is gonna be critical to determining who the #Falcons RB4 winds up being. #ATLvsMIA #rewatch— Aaron Freeman (@falcfans) August 22, 2021
A running back group featuring Mike Davis, Cordarrelle Patterson, Qadree Ollison and Huntley would be a very physical one, but also one with significant special teams value given that Huntley will be compelled to play there, Ollison has experience there and Patterson is obviously the team’s kick returner. Huntley told us the Falcons saw him as a back who could come in and contribute for them, and as the summer has slipped by he’s made it increasingly clear that he can do just that. Davis only has a two year deal and Patterson’s only signed for a year, so if Huntley shows he can be well-rounded and do this caliber of work against NFL starters, there’s a huge opportunity in front of him.
RB Javian Hawkins
I’m not ready to count him out yet. Hawkins still has game-changing speed and that would be welcome in this backfield, and he showed off those wheels on a 30 yard run where he evaded a couple of tackles.
The problem is that unlike Huntley, he didn’t mix one big run with a couple of other impressive carries as he was relatively quiet the rest of the night and hasn’t stood out in quite the same way since pads went on. If the Falcons are big believers in their line, though, Hawkins’ ability to find a hole and go for miles could still be hugely valuable for them in the near-term, and with time and refinement there’s little question he can be a weapon for this team.
In other words, Hawkins was a priority for the Falcons for a reason, and I’m a big believer in his talent. Whoever doesn’t make the roster out of him and Huntley needs to be added to the practice squad, assuming another team doesn’t snap them up.
TE/FB John Raine
Interestingly, Scott Bair at AtlantaFalcons.com just dropped a 53 man roster projection that had Raine on it. It’s not hard to figure out why.
Raine has shown the kind of versatility this staff clearly prizes by getting looks at both fullback and tight end, a critical piece of the puzzle for a young player trying to make the roster. He was the team’s leading receiver in the first preseason game, got an end zone target that might’ve been a touchdown with a more on-target throw from Franks and is a solid enough blocker already to at least be useful his rookie season. If you can catch, block and play multiple positions, especially when the team could use a capable fourth tight end and emergency fullback behind Keith Smith, your chances of hanging out would appear to be solid.
OL Ryan Neuzil
One of my favorite subplots of the offseason has been an enthusiastic friend or family member of Neuzil’s who routinely send me pro-Neuzil propaganda and clips on Twitter. I hope this doesn’t sound like sarcasm, because honestly we all should have someone willing to stump for us that hard.
I know it was an interception but watch the heads from yes LG #64 Ryan Neuzil his closing speed at 310lbs from the other side of the ball. Yes he really is that good @IvanR70 @Jon_Jennings26 @FalcoholicKevin @TheFalcoholic pic.twitter.com/tAXWdcxMXg— JSN (@neuz_update) August 23, 2021
This would just be an amusing summer footnote if Neuzil hadn’t been backing it up with his play. One of the most impressive undrafted free agent linemen early on, Neuzil has turned heads in both preseason games with his effort and skill, and he’s got a bit of the nasty edge that Falcons fans have been demanding from their linemen since the days when Harvey Dahl stole many a heart. The Falcons seem likely to carry nine offensive linemen, and if Neuzil keeps impressing and the team wants to carry one more guard option, he might make it.
OL Joe Sculthorpe
There are two things working in Sculthorpe’s favor: He’s quietly doing pretty good work in preseason and he can play center, something only Matt Hennessy, Drew Dalman and (maybe in an emergency) Josh Andrews can really do.
There’s not going to be room for both he and Neuzil, but Sculthorpe has done himself enough favors and the team’s depth chart along the line is unsettled enough that him sneaking on to the final roster can’t be dismissed out of hand.
LB Dorian Etheridge
Things are trickier on the defense, where the Falcons have several drafted rookies virtually locked into spots and added a lot of veterans who have done fine work this summer. At inside linebacker, though, there’s only three established options and seemingly a fourth roster spot up for grabs.
I’m not ruling out Erroll Thompson, especially not for a practice squad spot, but I think Etheridge has a better shot at actually making the roster after a very uneven effort for Thompson against the Dolphins. Etheridge looked like a stud against the Titans and may have gotten a leg up on Thompson just by having a quieter game, given that Thompson had some notable struggles in coverage. I’d expect the team to prioritize keeping both around in some fashion, but I’ve got Etheridge ticketed for the roster spot right now.
This is a short list, and you might quibble with me leaving off safeties J.R. Pace and Dwayne Johnson Jr. or wide receiver Austin Trammell, among others. Ultimately I think the Falcons will have a fairly lean safety group that may feature T.J. Green as the final corner/safety, and that Trammell hasn’t been able to do enough to push past the likes of Christian Blake and Frank Darby for what might only be one open spot in this receiving corps. Out of the list above, I’d bet heavily on one of Huntley and Hawkins (and Huntley appears to have the edge today) and Etheridge making the team, with Raine looking like he has a decent shot of unseating Parker Hesse as well.
You should not be stunned if multiple players from the list above do make this roster, given this team’s cap reality and desire to rebuild their depth, and the good news is that they appear to have found a few gems this summer. We’ll only have to wait a short time to find out how many do stick around.