The Falcons just wrapped up their first round of organized team activities, and they did so with a little roster reshuffling that saw them cut John Cominsky, move Avery Williams to running back, and add running back Jeremy McNichols. You should expect plenty of churn at the bottom of the roster in the coming months, but this morning, I’m more interested in talking about the top of the roster.
That’s because this team is not any more settled than it was a year ago, when Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith first arrived. On the contrary, there are actually more starting jobs up for grabs than there were a year ago, because the new regime took a hard look at the 2021 team and decided several areas needed significant change. Their hand was also forced in a couple of instances, most notably the Calvin Ridley situation and the panic trade of Matt Ryan, but otherwise the team has deliberately set themselves up for battles at positions players where players essentially walked into starting roles a year ago.
Let’s look at the list real quick, and who might realistically be competing for jobs heading into 2022.
- Quarterback: Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder
- Running back: Tyler Allgeier, Damien Williams, and Cordarrelle Patterson
- #2 wide receiver: Bryan Edwards, Auden Tate, Damiere Byrd, Geronimo Allison, Olamide Zaccheaus
- Left guard: Jalen Mayfield, Justin Shaffer, Elijah Wilkinson
- Center: Matt Hennessy, Drew Dalman
- Right tackle: Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi
- Defensive tackle: Everyone except Grady Jarrett
- Outside linebacker/defensive end: Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Lorenzo Carter, Arnold Ebiketie, DeAngelo Malone
- Inside linebacker: Deion Jones, Rashaan Evans, Mykal Walker, Nick Kwiatkoski, Troy Andersen
- Nickel cornerback: Isaiah Oliver, Darren Hall, Dee Alford, Teez Tabor
- Safety: Richie Grant, Jaylinn Hawkins, Erik Harris, Dean Marlowe
- Punter: Dom Maggio, Seth Vernon
That’s 15 of 25 starting jobs, counting kicker, punter, and long snapper among them and assuming you consider the nickel spot a starting job, as I do given the number of snaps the winner there is likely to see. I wouldn’t say that’s extraordinary—the Falcons made a lot of changes in 2015 and 2016, not to mention 2008—but it does mean the talk of competition from Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot is anything but hollow.
Even last year, when the new Falcons brass arrived with a competition-first ethos, the majority of positions were pretty locked in. You essentially had left guard, center, the defensive line and outside linebacker spots, plus the #2 and #3 cornerback jobs, both safety spots, and punter. You can throw punt returner and running back in there if you like, but the point is that at most the team was working with 10 or so open jobs. They didn’t have the money either of the last two years to make splashes in many places, so it’s unsurprising in the extreme that “may the best man win” is essentially the philosophy for so many spots.
The ideal outcome, obviously, is that there aren’t nearly so many jobs up for grabs in 2023. The Falcons want to be able to solve a handful of major needs with their newfound cap space, draft a couple more starters, and spend the rest of their resources on high-upside players and key reserves. Whether they’ll be able to do so will depend a lot on how good the winners of these particular competitions in 2022 prove to be, making this summer a pivotal one in Atlanta.