Right before preseason, we checked in on some roster battles on both sides of the ball, starting with the offense. With a game in the books, it’s good to go back to our assumptions for those last handful of roster spots in Atlanta and see how (or if) they’ve changed after the Falcons played the Dolphins Friday night.
We’re not close to declaring any of these battles settled just yet, but I do think strong cases were made by the likes of Godwin Igwebuike, Xavier Malone, and Ryan Neuzil for roster spots, and the left guard battle may be closer to shaking out simply based on Matt Hennessy’s injury. Let’s take a look.
RB4: Godwin Igwebuike on the rise
Carlos Washington ran hard en route to 12 carries for 27 yards, and also proved to be a crucial checkdown option for Logan Woodside, with three receptions for 19 yards. He didn’t do anything to dissuade the team from keeping him around as the fourth running back, and the fact that he had one of the highest snap counts on the team and rolled out as a starter should be a big deal for him. The Falcons asked him to pass protect and he fared pretty well there.
Godwin Igdwebuike just might have done more to push for that role on Friday night. The recent free agent signing put up 70 yards on the ground and punched in a touchdown, showing burst and physicality along the way. He also fielded a kickoff return and took it 24 yards, and his value as a returner could help him sew up a roster spot with Cordarrelle Patterson not a lock to handle every return this season.
As Arthur Smith said, per Falcons reporter Tori McElhaney, Igwebuike was impressive.
“He’s a guy who has been out there and he has another opportunity and he’s trying to take advantage of it,” Smith said. “He’s a smart, tough guy. I really thought he hit the hole hard tonight and ran downhill and did a good job pressing and cutting. Some of the gap stuff that we were doing, especially on the touchdown run, he was in a pretty good groove.”
This isn’t a settled matter just yet—there are two games to go and Washington has shown well in practices all summer—but you might have to give the edge to Igwebuike given his experience, work as a returner, and the quality of his play against Miami.
WR5: Xavier Malone makes his case
For what this means to anyone, Malone received the best Pro Football Focus grade of anyone on offense, and also led the team in receiving with a pair of impressive grabs for 50 yards. On a day where he was the only receiver with more than one reception and a couple of other options had noteworthy drops, Malone likely earned a longer look next Friday.
I don’t think this is a settled battle—Penny Hart got plenty of playing time and Frank Darby might have if not for an injury—so Malone likely didn’t put himself out in front with a single game. He might be able to do so with another.
LG: No additional clarity, but Bergeron may have the lead
There is a fairly widespread assumption, and a reasonable one, that Matthew Bergeron sitting out the game against the Dolphins might mean the left guard job is his. I’m not sure we know that with Matt Hennessy not (to my knowledge) back from injury, as the Falcons would simply not want to expose Bergeron to injury without Hennessy available.
That said, the fact that Hennessy hasn’t been able to practice and Bergeron has reportedly held his own over weeks of practice as the starter probably bodes well for his chances, given that Hennessy needed a good summer to
OL 8/9: Give the edge to Josh Miles and/or Ryan Neuzil
Again, I’m working off the assumption that whoever loses the Hennessy/Bergeron battle is a roster lock, and that Jalen Mayfield is a fairly strong bet for a spot given the team’s apparent faith in him. That leaves one or two spots left, and if the Falcons don’t go sniffing around other teams’ cuts at the end of August, I think Miles and Neuzil are the favorites based on their extended snap counts and (mostly) solid work.
That’s more true for Neuzil, who remains a mauling run blocker and capable pass protector, than for Miles, who surrendered a sack and had a few hiccups on his day as a run blocker. Miles is one of the few players on this roster that the team seems comfortable lining up at left tackle, however, and the swing tackle role is a vital one for Atlanta and one that I doubt they’ll trust Mayfield to fill. Pencil Miles in, and if the team is willing to carry one more backup on the interior, Neuzil should be it.