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The biggest Falcons roster construction questions with cuts looming

Is Atlanta’s depth along the lines set, and how will they divvy up skill position spots?

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Atlanta Falcons vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We’re just waiting for the 53 man roster to become final. “Final,” sorry, we all know it’s not exactly set in stone even when it’s announced.

Regardless, we’ll soon know what a long offseason and busy summer has meant for the roster, and in turn what the team facing the Saints in Week 1 is going to look like. Ahead of that, let’s talk lingering questions about how the team will build its roster, chiefly concerning the final few spots that remain unsettled.

How will the Falcons divvy up very limited skill position spots on offense?

I feel confident the Falcons are keeping the following guys on offense:

Quarterback: Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder, Feleipe Franks

Running back: Cordarrelle Patterson, Damien Williams, Tyler Allgeier, Avery Williams

Fullback: Keith Smith

Wide receiver: Drake London, Bryan Edwards, Olamide Zaccheaus, KhaDarel Hodge

Tight end: Kyle Pitts, Anthony Firkser, Parker Hesse

Offensive line: Jake Matthews, Elijah Wilkinson, Matt Hennessy, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, Germaine Ifedi, Drew Dalman, Jalen Mayfield, Colby Gossett

That leaves the team with 23 players locked in, which in turn gives them probably 1-2 spots to play with, depending on how they plan to stock the defense initially. That’s not a lot, and it makes the decisions ahead at the skill positions particularly difficult.

My expectation at the moment is that they keep just one wide receiver out of the group vying for spots, with Feleipe Franks functioning as both the third quarterback and fourth tight end, with a practice squad quarterback possible and MyCole Pruitt and perhaps John FitzPatrick drawing strong consideration for the squad themselves. I had thought Pruitt was making a big push for a roster spot until the team sat Hesse Saturday night.

It’s sobering to look at this group and realize just how few spots are available, given how many reserves have flashed for Atlanta this summer. If they do only keep one wide receiver, it will likely come down to one of the trio of impressive rookie Jared Bernhardt, energy bringer and core special teamer Frank Darby, and the experienced and speedy Damiere Byrd. My gut says it’ll be Darby at the moment, but it feels like a real toss-up, and I know plenty of fans have Bernhardt down in pen while Kevin Knight’s roster projection has them holding on to Byrd.

If they’re allocating another spot to offense—and I’m guessing they will—they’ll likely be choosing between another wide receiver and a running back, with running back Caleb Huntley, Byrd, and Bernhardt being potential beneficiaries if they do hold on to Darby. Pruitt is also a candidate, given his familiarity with Arthur Smith and excellent blocking skills. It is a question of what the team wants from that final spot, and it’s impossible to have a great read on that at the moment.

Is the offensive line set in stone?

As I said, Atlanta’s probably keeping nine guys. They elected to only play Gossett a handful of snaps on special teams, indicating he’s locked in, and I genuinely would be shocked to see them cut Mayfied given the coaching staff’s apparent belief in his potential. Given that Ifedi and Dalman/Hennessy feel like locks at least initially, given roster needs, I’m about 90% confident this will be the group. A surprise Mayfield cut is the only potential curveball.

That said, is this group final? I have to think given the shakiness of the line that Atlanta will at least consider swapping out one of these guys for an upgrade if one becomes available in the waves of roster cuts to come, which would shake up the initial group. If not, they’ll likely look to stock the practice squad instead, with only Ryan Neuzil and Justin Shaffer feeling like borderline locks there.

What’s the depth situation along the defensive line?

It’s fair to say the Falcons have shown concern with their depth here. They picked up Eddie Goldman only to watch him retire, added promising former Saint Jalen Dalton only to watch him get hurt in the game against the Jets, and now are looking at potentially not having Marlon Davidson to start the season.

The Falcons have been good and/or lucky enough to unearth some interesting players, even so. Derrick Tangelo really came on against the Jaguars, making a push for a roster spot after fellow undrafted free agent Timothy Horne impressed throughout the summer. Both Nick Thurman and Abdullah Anderson have had fine summers, as well, with Anderson in particular delivering consistently strong performances since joining the team. That has likely bolstered the team’s confidence in their depth behind Grady Jarrett, Ta’Quon Graham, and Anthony Rush, but it does not mean they are going to be content to stand pat.

The likeliest outcome would seem to be the team keeping one of Tangelo or Horne and stashing the other if they clear waivers, with Thurman and Anderson rounding it out. We’ll then get a sense of just how confident the Falcons are in that group when they have the opportunity to add to it.

Who grabs the final spot or two on defense?

Here’s my expectation for who the team is keeping on defense, borderline lock edition:

Defensive line: Grady Jarrett, Ta’Quon Graham, Anthony Rush, Abdullah Anderson, Derrick Tangelo

Linebacker: Lorenzo Carter, Ade Ogundeji, Rashaan Evans, Mykal Walker, Arnold Ebiketie, DeAngelo Malone, Deion Jones, Troy Andersen, Nate Landman

Cornerback: A.J. Terrell, Casey Hayward, Isaiah Oliver, Darren Hall, Dee Alford

Safety: Richie Grant, Jaylinn Hawkins, Erik Harris, Dean Marlowe

Assuming the Falcons will have 25 guys on offense, as I did above, they have room for 25 defenders on the initial 53 man roster. I have 23 players I’d consider very strong bets to make the roster right now and I’m a little shaky on two of them, given that I’m reading tea leaves and thinking Tangelo’s early appearance and strong performance plus the very extended look at Landman on special teams and defense will cause the team to keep both. That leaves two open spots.

Where will the team go? They could keep another defensive lineman to add depth, stock the secondary with more insurance, or add another pass rusher with potential given that the outside linebacker group is quality but only four players deep. If I had to guess, Quinton Bell’s strong summer and Teez Tabor’s versatility will earn them spots as the last outside linebacker and final defensive back on the roster, respectively. As is the case with the last couple of spots on offense, though, these truly are guesses given that the team has not given us any strong indication of their plans.

How active will the team be after cuts?

I alluded to this more than once above, but the Falcons are almost certainly not going to keep the 53 man roster as is for very long, regardless of how they answer the questions above. Atlanta has pledged to address the lines but has made suspiciously few moves to do so to this point in the summer, and all of the moves we have seen have been concentrated on the defensive line.

This quote from Arthur Smith, captured by Josh Kendall at The Athletic, speaks volumes about both the dispiriting lack of pizza parties and Atlanta’s plans to keep an eye out for potential additions.

“Nobody makes the 53 and then has a pizza party. That’s not the way it works,” Smith said. “It’s very fluid.”

The answer to this one probably depends on who becomes available. If they want to take advantage of their favorable position in the waiver order—they’re 8th, because it still reflects the 2022 NFL Draft order—they may well scoop up a couple of additions. If they don’t, they’ll still have plenty of chances to sign free agents ahead of the season, which would obviously and unfortunately be bad news for players who just finished making the roster.

It feels inevitable that Atlanta will at least turn over one-to-two roster spots shortly after the 53 man roster is announced, both because of what Smith has said and the front office’s repeated statements about scouting other rosters. We should have all of the questions answered sometime in the next week, but don’t expect every answer to be a final one.