Training camp and preseason take a 90 man roster, rattle it around for a while, and produce a 53 man roster and 16 man practice squad for every NFL team. This year especially, with one single round of 37-plus cuts, the opportunity for players to prove they belong is extended.
There are players who are firmly on the roster bubble coming into training camp who will have to make the most of that opportunity. Here are a handful on offense who have been around through the first couple years of the Arthur Smith era and, thanks to increased competition and/or a lack of huge impact over the past two seasons, find themselves firmly on the roster bubble heading into training camp.
QB/TE/ Feleipe Franks
There is a part of me that believes there is no way Franks will be cut, because his upside and versatility puts a song in Arthur Smith’s heart that can move even dour head coaches to tears. But I also believe that Franks has to take a big step forward at some point to justify his continued presence on the team, as he’s been taking up active slots on gameday to play very little. He has just 68 snaps on offense and 127 snaps on special teams over the course of the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
Franks is trying to stick on a team with three quarterbacks (Desmond Ridder, Taylor Heinicke, Logan Woodside) and a plethora of tight end options (Kyle Pitts, Parker Hesse, Jonnu Smith, a newly healthy John FitzPatrick, Tucker Fisk). The fact that he can play both positions, chip in on special teams, and still retains that intriguing blend of height and speed works in his favor, but a QB4/TE5 hybrid does not seem to be the kind of player a deeper team has to carry.
If Franks progresses and the team figures out a way to use him a bit more often and more effectively on offense, he’ll be a fun back-of-the-roster player. Otherwise, this might be the year the experiment ends.
FB Keith Smith
Here comes a more controversial one.
Smith has now been a fixture as fullback and on special teams for two sets of coaching staffs, having joined up in 2019. He’s played about a quarter of the offensive snaps for every game he has been in and close to two-thirds of the special teams snaps, and that last piece is what’s likely to keep him on the roster. Few players on this team are as reliable as Smith is as a special teams tackler, and that matters a lot to coordinator Marquice Williams.
For the first time in recent memory, though, Smith has some competition. Clint Ratkovich was a punishing blocker and standout special teamer in college, and after losing much of his rookie season to injury, he’s healthy and set to push for a roster spot. I think the team would ideally find an affordable long-term fit at fullback, and with a good summer Ratkovich may well fit the bill.
Smith is probably the player on this list least likely to actually be cut, but it’s a realistic possibility if Ratkovich excels in the coming months. Fullback will be a camp battle worth watching for the first time in a long while.
WR Frank Darby
Darby has teetered on the edge of this roster for a couple of years now, spending much of his rookie season mothballed and spending the bulk of 2022 on the practice squad. Through two years in the NFL, he has just two catches, 74 offensive snaps, and 154 on special teams.
Darby has a real shot at making the roster because he does have two years in the system, special teams value, and retains enough promise to project as a useful reserve receiver. The team has added so much competition at the position, from Penny Hart to Slade Bolden to an intriguing group of undrafted free agents, that he’ll have to outshine his competition to make it. Remember, Darby was cut last year and wound up on the practice squad until late November.
If he can pull together a fine summer, Darby’s infectious energy and special teams value should help put him over the top. If not, his on-again, off-again stints with the team may well come to a close.
OL Jalen Mayfield
This one seems obvious. Once a third round pick who was converted to guard and pressed into action as the starting left guard in 2021, Mayfield had a rough rookie season and then missed 2022 with a back injury. Now Matthew Bergeron seems to be the long-term option at left guard, the team has stocked some depth in the position group, and Kaleb McGary is back at right tackle, Mayfield’s college position. There’s no path to a starting job, and only a narrow path to a reserve role.
I have him penciled in to win a role as the reserve right tackle and deep option at guard, but Mayfield has to show he’s healthy and making strides to get it. The team’s lack of urgency to add tackle options might work in his favor, but ex-XFLer Barry Wesley, former Cardinal Josh Wells, and hyper-versatile ex-Saint Ethan Greenidge will be competing with him for a possible swing tackle role. At guard, Matt Hennessy is all but locked in to a roster spot, leaving Mayfield to prove he’s a better bet than, say, Ryan Neuzil, rookie Jovaughn Gwyn, or 2022 draft pick Justin Shaffer.
Mayfield has to show he can credibly take on multiple roles and has improved his pass protection in particular significantly, or his brief career in Atlanta may come to an abrupt end in 2023.