Back in June, the Falcons discussed adding help to the trenches, and it seemed logical that those additions would come at the expense of deep cornerback and wide receiver groups. To this point, we’re still waiting for that to happen, as the team has tinkered with the defensive line but not the offensive line, and have cut into that cornerback depth chart but not wide receiver.
The result is that there are 12 wide receivers on this roster right now, and the Falcons just swapped one out for another, cutting rookie Tyshaun James and adding former Cardinal and Eagle KeeSean Johnson. Most roster projections have them keeping five—including my own, which is currently just in my head—and you would figure they’ll keep a couple on the practice squad. Four of those players seem pretty close to locked in, with Drake London, Bryan Edwards, Olamide Zaccheaus, and KhaDarel Hodge consistently running with the starters, which effectively leaves eight players competing for what seems likely to be one roster spot. It’s beyond obvious that Atlanta’s desire to nail the depth at wide receiver, both on the roster and on the practice squad, has led them to prioritize taking up nearly 15% of their allotted spots with receivers.
It has been unusually difficult to figure out who the winner of that competition is going to be. Geronimo Allison got extensive run on Friday night against the Lions and offers the size Arthur Smith’s offense prefers and some special teams ability, but is that what this team wants for a fifth receiver? Would they prefer Cameron Batson’s in-a-pinch return ability and speed, or Damiere Byrd’s speed and history of quality production? Is Auden Tate’s towering height and intriguing potential enough to help him stick, or will new arrival KeeSean Johnson push his way on? Is Frank Darby’s role as a wing/gunner on special teams and promise as a receiver enough to carry the day? Does Stanley Berryhill’s special teams value and impressive camp make him a surprise addition? Does Jared Bernhardt’s intriguing athleticism and touchdown grab in preseason Week 1 work in his favor?
Some of these questions are more fair than others—Berryhill and Bernhardt seem like practice squadders, for example, and Batson making it over Byrd would be weird given the latter’s obvious value as a receiver—but it feels like there’s real uncertainty here. That may be one reason why the Falcons have held on to so many receivers for so long, and they may legitimately be mulling carrying six players at the position group to ensure they have the depth they want, even if they have to trim depth elsewhere to make that happen. That would allow them to carry a receiver they’re excited about—say Allison, who despite his drop is clearly a player this staff likes—plus a core special teamer like Darby for Marquice Williams. The fact that Avery Williams has been catching a lot of passes in camp may obviate the need for that, though.
The team is giving the position its proper weight, given their strong need for quality depth, but it does seem likely the days of a dozen receivers hanging out on the roster will end soon. The Falcons have a preseason game Monday night, five cuts due in the next day, and then turn around to play a Saturday night matchup to cap preseason before their cutdown to a 53 man roster. Playing time against the Jets and the likelihood of at least one cut being among that five should help us get closer to figuring out who is going to hang around into September. For what it’s worth, my gut feeling—not shared by many at this point, I’d wager—is that Darby has progressed enough and has carved out enough value on special teams to get that last spot.
Chances are some of the team’s biggest additions will come after they cut down to the 53 man roster and not before, given the team’s pledge to be falcon-eyed about who other teams cut, and given that their depth along both lines is far from settled. It’s still a strong bet that the wide receiver position will be thinner this time next week, and that we’ll have a better idea of who ultimately will stick on the roster.