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Depth chart implications of the first Falcons preseason game

A few big notes from last Friday’s game, and what it might mean for the depth chart.

NFL: JUL 30 Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ll be turning our eyes to the upcoming Falcons - Jets game soon enough, but let’s take one look back at last week’s game for a big topic: The depth chart.

Locked On Falcons host and Falcoholic contributor Aaron Freeman created a rolling depth chart in Google Sheets that’s useful for this exercise and the future, and you can find that here. Let’s take a closer look at a few ways last week may have given us some clarity on the depth chart, as well as where some big questions still remain.

Qadree Ollison is on the rise

Making any big statements about the running back group at this point is probably silly. Cordarrelle Patterson is the starter, but the team will likely draw his snaps down a bit this year to keep him fresh all season, which will leave a lot of room for other backs to make their mark.

The first player to make that mark was Ollison, who ran with the starters on Friday night and managed 33 yards on just five carries, including a nice 18 yard scamper. Ollison has been through the ringer during his time in Atlanta, getting buried on the depth chart, cut, put on the practice squad, and so on, but it appears he has a leg up on a significant role in the early going.

The team could blow this up by shuffling who is up first against the Jets, but for now, you should pencil Ollison in as Patterson’s backup, with Damien Williams as the third back. That likely means Tyler Allgeier starts the year as the fourth back on the depth chart with a significant role on special teams—he led all players in snaps there Friday—but I’d expect him to carve out a larger one on offense sooner than later.

KhaDarel Hodge has a spot sewn up, and receiver may be fairly set

The wide receiver depth chart may be more settled than Friday’s playing time indicates, and the biggest beneficiary appears to be Hodge.

When the Falcons signed Hodge—the first wide receiver to join a decimated depth chart, mind you—it was fair to assume he’s slot in primarily as a core special teamer. Hodge is a terrific gunner and will fill that role in Atlanta, and that figured to give him a strong chance of making the roster. What I didn’t expect is that he’d roll out as a starter with Bryan Edwards on the shelf, something that bodes extremely well for him.

If the team is high on Hodge being a contributor, they have four players more or less locked into the roster with Drake London, Edwards, and Olamide Zaccheaus also figuring to have roles. That means the battle for spots likely comes down to Geronimo Allison, who got into the game early and received a lot of run on Friday night, as well as Damiere Byrd, Auden Tate, and rookies like Jared Bernhardt and Stanley Berryhill. Allison would appear to be in the driver’s seat given his playing time, but I’m not sure he did enough to hold on to the pole position on Friday.

The offensive line is fascinating

Barring a major upset or injury, your starting line in Week 1 will feature Jake Matthews, Elijah Wilkinson, Chris Lindstrom, and Kaleb McGary. Center and the depth is not yet set, however, and there are some big questions with that that fascinate me.

Let’s start with center. The opinions on Drew Dalman versus Matt Hennessy have been divided to this point and that continued Friday, and I suspect Dalman will get a game with the starters before Atlanta truly settles this battle. What we do know is that whoever loses that battle will have the backup center job, with recent conversion Ryan Neuzil likely representing the practice squad option for the team at the position.

You can view the level of competition here in a couple of ways. Either having two players the team believes can start is a big plus—and in-season it’s likely to be, if any injuries or ineffectiveness crop up—or it’s a sign that the team doesn’t have any truly high-end options at a critical position. Depending on whether Hennessy or Dalman seizes the job and how they perform, center could be a spot the Falcons look hard at upgrading in 2023.

The other interesting question concerns tackle. Will the Falcons carry two reserves at the position, with Germain Ifedi serving as Kaleb McGary’s direct backup and Rick Leonard serving as Jake Matthews’ backup, or will Leonard get the nod for a roster spot based on his versatility? It would have been unthinkable a month ago for Ifedi not to make the roster—and I still think he will—but the fact that Leonard’s making his case does at least make this interesting.

Then there’s guard, with similar lingering questions. My working expectation is that Jalen Mayfield makes the roster either way, with fellow second-stringer Colby Gossett’s fortunes dependent on whether Atlanta’s final lineman on the roster is a guard or a tackle. It is worth remembering that Gossett can play tackle in a pinch, as well. There’s a strong undercurrent in this fanbase that Mayfield is a lost cause and should be cut after he once again looked lost in pass protection Friday night, but I just don’t think the coaching staff is going to be ready to give up on him just yet.

Finally, Justin Shaffer’s role with the third team offense and the number of spots available would seem to indicate the rookie is ticketed for a practice squad spot, unless the team loves him enough to bump Mayfield or Gossett instead. It’s worth wondering how many of the team’s 16 practice squad roles will go to the offensive line, because Shaffer, Neuzil, and Leroy Watson all seem worthy of keeping, but the team may want to stock a couple of veterans in case of emergency like they did with Willie Beavers a year ago.

There are a lot of questions to be answered here, in other words, and not a lot of time to answer them. Last year the team switched between carrying eight and nine offensive linemen, and today I’d expect Ifedi, Mayfield, and Gossett to make the roster, with Leonard, Shaffer, and Neuzil pulling practice squad spots.

Ta’Quon Graham will be a de facto starter

Big and bold? Not really.

Graham looked really good in his snaps on Friday and has been steadily improving since he arrived in Atlanta, and he ran with the starters. Marlon Davidson is unfortunately once again missing time, which will likely put him a little behind, and Graham is this regime’s selection. You likely saw the team’s starting line in Week 1 on the field Friday between Graham, Anthony Rush, and Grady Jarrett, and while there will be significant rotation, it’s going to be worth watching the second year pro for what might be a breakout season.

Dee Alford gets a leg up at cornerback

The Alford signing was one of my favorite ones of the offseason, because it was a low-cost, low-risk swing on a high-upside player who was terrific north of the border last year. All Alford has done since then is validate the signing, and that culminated in a very strong effort on Friday night that should give him a good shot at the last roster spot at cornerback.

In all, Alford notched a team-leading eight tackles and the team’s sole interception on a heads-up play, the kind of big preseason effort that catches the attention of fans and coaches alike. Given that Cornell Armstrong, Lafayette Pitts, and others did not truly stand out in their game action, Alford probably just needs to keep it rolling to land on the squad.