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3 major Falcons Week 1 depth chart questions

Is Dee Alford starting at nickel? What’s going on with the center battle?

Atlanta Falcons v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The roster is mostly set before Week 1 for the Falcons, who placed a surprising five players on injured reserve and shuffled the bottom of the roster. There’s one more practice squad spot to fill and perhaps an addition or two if Atlanta’s front office deems it necessary, but in practice, the roster is close to the form it’ll be in against the Saints.

Now the questions concern the depth chart more than the roster. Here are three I’m wondering about with just over a week to go until the season opener.

Who is winning the center battle?

We know who the third center is after Ryan Neuzil held on against Jonotthan Harrison. There are now just two centers on the active roster, but we don’t know which one is actually the starter as of today.

The Falcons have been pretty studious about splitting reps evenly between Drew Dalman and Matt Hennessy all summer, trying to give each one a legitimate chance of taking the starting job. If both players are sharper than they were a year ago, it’s a good thing for a Falcons team that needs improvement and better depth along their offensive line. Arthur Smith could keep this one a secret right up until gametime if he wanted to just to try to gain a small edge on New Orleans, but chances are it’ll be announced toward the end of the week.

We should have a resolution soon, and I think I’m still expecting Hennessy to take it. Dalman was the hand-selected pick of the new regime, however, and as long as both players are in Atlanta the starter will have to ensure they don’t falter too badly given how close this competition has been.

Who is the starting nickel?

Isaiah Oliver came back and was an obvious favorite of Dean Pees and the coaching staff, which made it seem like a fait accompli that he would win the job. When he hit injured reserve this past week, it left a vacuum at the nickel position.

Atlanta managed to pick up two contenders for the job this offseason, though, which likely made them more comfortable with Oliver missing at least the first four weeks. That would be Mike Ford, who was kept and then cut and then brought back last week, and former CFL standout Dee Alford. Ford has competed for a starting nickel job in the past with the Lions and seems to be a player the coaching staff trusts, while Alford has just been one of the most impressive young players on the Falcons all summer long. Considering it looked like Oliver or bust with maybe a sprinkle of Darren Hall—who now is the top backup outside, effectively—the Falcons find themselves in a relatively favorable position now despite not having Oliver for a bit.

It’s not clear which one is going to start at the moment, but given Alford’s impressive summer, I’m going to guess it will be him.

What’s the plan at running back?

This is, in some ways, the most interesting position group on the entire roster. Cordarrelle Patterson is the de factor starter after his terrific 2021 campaign, but the Falcons have hinted that they’ll keep his workload manageable to ensure he’s fresh all season long. He’s also plenty capable of being an asset split out wide, given his size, speed, and history at wide receiver, so there will be snaps available for other backs. Patterson’s just the obvious favorite to be the most productive back.

What does that mean for the rest of the depth chart? Damien Williams has been a backup more or less his entire career and a fine one, but he has traditionally done his best work as a runner on early downs (where Patterson will get a lot of run) and as a receiver on third down, where his career numbers (52 grabs on 68 targets, 486 yards and 6 touchdowns) suggest he can be lethal for Atlanta. Avery Williams, meanwhile, also profiles as a player who would benefit from being a pass catching option given his speed and savviness, putting him on a collision course for snaps with the other Williams in the background. That’s assuming he gets any real playing time in 2022 after just shifting to a new position, of course.

Then there’s Tyler Allgeier, the most obvious candidate for early down and short yardage besides Patterson, given his physicality as a runner. Allgeier is still my sneaky pick to lead the backfield in carries this season, as he appears to have all the tools necessary to succeed in Arthur Smith’s scheme, but he likely won’t start the year with a huge role.

This is a long-winded way of saying that the backfield for the Falcons is a bit of a muddle, with at least three players capable of playing major roles this season and another (Avery Williams) who is legitimately interesting owing to his speed and potential as a pass catcher. We can be sure that Patterson will do well again this year, but otherwise figuring out how the depth chart will shake out in reality is something I’m looking forward to doing starting Sunday.