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Breaking down the biggest surprises on the Falcons’ initial 2021 roster

Three quarterbacks sticking on the 53-man roster leads the way.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons have unveiled their initial 2021 roster, with Arthur Smith, Terry Fontenot and company whittling down exactly who they want and don’t want sporting the Falcons jersey this year...at least for now.

To say there are surprises on this initial roster would be like saying there are still Quiznos sub shops. There are, but there are not nearly as many as you’d expect. A lot of Atlanta’s roster decisions are pretty cut-and-dry, but some eye-openers await analysis.

Smith and Fontenot threw us a few things we couldn’t assume before cut day, so let’s look them over.

The Falcons keep three quarterbacks (for now)

Atlanta isn’t taking its chances losing the quarterbacks it already has. After losing assumed backup A.J. McCarron to an ACL injury, the team signed journeyman Josh Rosen, the 2018 first-round pick who has failed to develop, to compete with undrafted free agent Feleipe Franks for the backup job. While we’re still unsure who exactly would step in should Ryan miss time, the team has opted to keep Rosen and Franks to start the season.

Rosen didn’t look half bad against the Cleveland Browns, and it’s hard to imagine Smith isn’t at least somewhat curious he can work his magic with Rosen to help him develop more like he did with former draft mediocrity-turned-extremely valuable quarterback Ryan Tannehill. That, of course, is miles away from a given, but it might be where the team is right now with the former Cardinal. Franks has some impressive legs but hasn’t shown too much in the passing game, which makes him another prime developmental candidate.

The team could very much go out and get another quarterback, as neither Rosen nor Franks inspires much confidence to lead the team if Ryan has an extended absence. For now, it looks like the Falcons will carry three until they have need of another roster spot or find another appealing quarterback option, at which point one of these two will head to the practice squad.

LB Dorian Etheridge makes the cut; RB Caleb Huntley doesn’t

Outside of Franks, Etheridge has been the standout undrafted guy throughout preseason and training camp. While he might be penciled in for an inactive spot on game day, making the roster shows that the team hasn’t ignored his preseason production and wants to develop him for more down the road. If injury hits, he’d be a decent-enough backup to help out on special teams or even in some game play if needed, and his upside makes him intriguing in a linebacker group that could use a developmental option.

Huntley, however, was the undrafted running back we all thought might crack the 53 after Javian Hawkins’ release and 2019 draft pick Qadree Ollison not seemingly doing a lot in preseason to separate himself from the UDFA. He wound up being cut in favor of Ollison for the RB3 spot, but don’t be surprised if he’s back on the practice squad should he clear waivers (which, judging by his preseason snaps, isn’t a foregone conclusion).

CB Kendall Sheffield makes roster as team carries 11 defensive backs

There was a time not long ago when we thought Sheffield’s blistering speed and raw potential might make him an eventual starting cornerback in the NFL, something Dan Quinn was a proponent of. That time has passed, as injuries have stunted his growth. He’s flashed enough in the past to make you wonder if his health holds up what kind of player he’d be, but those injuries have held him back this offseason and made him a possible cut candidate.

Not so, says the Falcons. They’re holding onto Sheffield and keeping him as a depth corner. He’s still got two years on his rookie deal, and you have to think the new regime wants to see what happens with him when he’s healthy. He could open up a roster spot when the Falcons shift him over to injured reserve, something we’re more than half-expecting given that he’s been hurt for a while. Chris Williamson, an early camp standout, wound up cut instead and should be a strong practice squad contender.

Versatile DB T.J. Green also made the cut as the team went with 11 players for the secondary: six cornerbacks, four safeties and Green, the flex guy.

WR Frank Darby makes roster after quiet preseason, training camp

While Darby’s infectious energy and deep ball potential made him an early favorite among Falcons fans, he had a quiet training camp and preseason minus a couple of highlight-worthy grabs. Clearly the team isn’t as concerned about that right now with Darby taking one of six wideout spots.

The sixth-round pick might be inactive on game day in favor of guys like Tajae Sharpe and Christian Blake, but this group also feels unsettled. Darby got some work as a gunner on special teams and could find his way into a role there first assuming he sticks around. We’ll see if Darby would be the first guy cut should the team claim or sign someone. If he is, consider him a strong practice squad candidate.

T Willie Beavers doesn’t make roster after leading depth chart at right tackle

Beavers stunned Falcons fans when the team penciled him as the starting right tackle ahead of 2019 first-round pick Kaleb McGary, but clearly that was an effective form of trickery from the Falcons staff. Even his subsequent role as the presumed swing tackle didn’t pan out.

McGary clearly is the starting right tackle judging how the preseason has gone, but you’d assume Beavers would stick as a swing tackle judging his depth chart placement. Jason Spriggs would up taking that role, with Beavers now on the outs. Again, he’s probably like the other guys above either bound for another team or for a spot on the practice squad.

Were there any surprises for you on how the 2021 Falcons have initially shaped their roster?