What do Avery Williams, Ryan Neuzil, Feleipe Franks, and LeRoy Watson have in common? At first glance, aside from being NFL players who happen to play for the Falcons, there aren’t a lot of common threads between the quartet.
Look a little closer, though, and there’s one major similarity: Every single one of them has switched positions coming into the 2022 season, and every one of them is drawing early praise for their performances in their new roles. It’s just training camp and it’s still early yet, of course, but all four players are making the most of fresh opportunities.
The Falcons’ willingness to try players out in new roles has been apparent since last year, when Cordarrelle Patterson took a much larger role at running back than he had at any point in his long career as a receiver and returner. This year, it may help a few roster hopefuls hold on to spots and even carve out real roles. Let’s take a closer look at all four players and what positions they’ve switched to.
Avery Williams: Cornerback to running back.
The initial reaction from some fans when they heard Williams was switching to running back was essentially “oh no, he’s cooked.” Depending on your perspective, this was an attempt to find a better role for Williams after he was obviously buried on the cornerback depth chart, or a sign that the team was dusting their hands of him after an uneven rookie season.
I think it’s the former. As Tori McElhaney wrote, Williams’ core role will be on special teams, where he has the opportunity to be a terrific returner. The switch to offense was made with an eye at finding a role where he can contribute outside of special teams, and running back is a familiar position to Williams because he played it in high school.
The early returns have been positive. As our own Kevin Knight noted, Williams has been getting a lot of work as a pass-catching threat thus far, and his speed and versatility could help him carve out a niche in the running back group this season. Even if he’s the fourth running back and only gets a handful of snaps there per game, he’s more likely to contribute than he would be clinging on as the sixth cornerback.
One final thought: We need to start taking Avery Williams seriously as a receiving threat. He is getting a ton of targets and consistently making the most out of them. I think Arthur Smith will find a way to get him on the field in creative ways. #Falcons— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) August 3, 2022
Franks isn’t completely done as a quarterback, as he’ll likely be the emergency option on gamedays this fall. What is clear is that he won’t focus on quarterback any longer, as his conversion to tight end appears to have real legs.
Expecting Franks to be more than an occasionally useful option in the passing game is probably too much, at least for 2022, but it was hard to expect much of anything after Franks was lightly used and largely a non-factor in other roles on offense in 2021. It’s a credit to the work he’s put in this offseason that he’s dusting defenders in training camp, even if that only means so much.
With his size and speed, Franks could be a legitimately interesting option on offense if he puts it all together, like a less grating Taysom Hill who will likely play far less quarterback. The early signs are encouraging for him, and with the release of Brayden Lenius, there aren’t a lot of intriguing pass-catching options at tight end competing for potential third and fourth spots on the depth chart.
Kevin Knight was the first observer to note that Neuzil has been logging time at center. An impressive player at times last preseason, Neuzil spent last season on the practice squad as a guard, but may be making a full-time shift to the pivot this summer.
#Falcons Arthur Smith gives particular praise to three players who have made position switches: TE/QB Feleipe Franks, RB Avery Williams, and C Ryan Neuzil.— Kevin Knight (@FalcoholicKevin) August 3, 2022
I am apparently the Ryan Neuzil guy. Smith said he mentioned him for me. Apparently the "Neuz Flash" is a thing!
Neuzil may push Jonotthan Harrison off the roster with a quality August, and his strength and upside make him interesting for a team that does not have a settled center situation. It’s unlikely the team would hand him the keys or even make him a direct backup for whoever wins the Drew Dalman/Matt Hennessy competition at center this summer, but with time and experience he could make things interesting for the incumbent competitors.
A long-term prospect and the only rookie on this list, Watson is a converted tight end who has been playing tackle for the Falcons. Watson’s best path to a larger role down the line is to make the practice squad and hone his craft after he became known for his blocking as a tight end in college, and per D. Orlando Ledbetter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he’s off to a good start.
Watson is interesting not just because he has the size and blocking acumen to make an impact at tackle, but because the tackle position is so unsettled going forward. Only fellow undrafted free agent Tyler Vrabel, journeyman veteran Rick Leonard, and Germain Ifedi are currently competing for roles with incumbent starters Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary, and only Matthews is under contract long-term within that group. There’s an opportunity for a player like Watson to impress this year and carve out a long-term role as a reserve in Atlanta, one that I hope he takes advantage of.
Let’s set appropriate expectations. None of these players have real shots at starting jobs, and in the case of Neuzil and Watson, practice squad slots are more likely than roster spots. Williams is likely to be no better than the team’s third or fourth back in addition to his return duties, while Franks is hoping to hold on as the fourth tight end and third quarterback. If any of them end up playing significant snaps in 2022 outside of Williams on special teams, it’s probably a bit of a concern for this team’s fortunes.
If they can continue to stand out throughout August, however, they may work their way into the team’s long-term plans as reserves at their new positions, which would be welcome. All four players are young and appear to have genuine upside, and this team has done a nice job of parlaying their skill sets into different opportunities than they might have expected when they first landed in Atlanta.
The Falcons are still working on building the next great roster—and they’re still a ways away from that outcome—but finding depth with intriguing upside via creative means is going to help them get one step closer. Let’s hope it pans out for at least some of these players.