Atlanta’s defense showed out against Miami, with a handful of individual defenders really showing out en route to a 19-3 victory for the Falcons. It’s little surprise, then, that some of the roster battles we’ve been monitoring appear are a little clearer today.
Well, all except one, that is. Let’s review.
DL Depth: Timothy Horne and Joe Gaziano should sew up spots
As I wrote during training camp, you know that Grady Jarrett, David Onyemata, Calais Campbell, and Ta’Quon Graham are locked into major roles and Zach Harrison has a spot. There should be a couple of roles left, depending on whether the Falcons prioritize depth at inside linebacker (more on that in a moment) or safety.
I think it’s pretty clear that Timothy Horne and Joe Gaziano are the two players who will grab those roles. That’s an echo of what I thought a bit over a week ago, but now it’s informed not just by camp practices but also significant playing time against Miami. Gaziano had a pair of run stops, a batted pass, and drew a holding call, showing himself to be a havoc-wreaker in a the same way that endeared him to Chargers fans during his time in Los Angeles. Horne was a valued piece of a thin defense a year ago and continues to look like a capable run defender in his own right, with a pair of stops and a pressure. I think these two players would need to wilt badly not to have two roles if they’re available, and to this point, they have not done so.
Carlos Davis and LaCale London played well on Friday night, as well, but the most serious competition to Horne and Gaziano is likely Albert Huggins. He was Atlanta’s highest-graded defender, per Pro Football Focus, and hyper-effective as both a pass rusher (1 sack, two hits, a hurry) and run defender (credited with two stops). If he can keep building on that, he might be able to leapfrog one of Horne or Gaziano, or at least set himself up with a practice squad spot.
ILB3/4/5: Nate Landman, Tae Davis, Frank Ginda, Mike Jones Jr., Andre Smith
The last time I wrote about this group, Mykal Walker was still on the team and the presumptive third inside linebacker. After a shaky day against Miami, he has now been waived, and former USFL linebacker Frank Ginda has been added in his place.
That move throws this group into chaos. I’ve had Davis penciled in to a roster spot more or less since he signed, but Landman has clearly come into his own over the course of the summer and now seems in line for a spot too. I’d guess that they keep four players and that Ginda will hold on if there are five available, but that’s a pure guess given that we’ve yet to see Ginda.
To reiterate: Landman’s special teams work and steady improvement seem to bode well for him and Davis is, out of everyone here, the most effective special teams player and should stick. Ginda could be a player the Falcons expect big things from or just an interesting pickup, but regardless this is perhaps the thinnest and least experienced (at least on defense) depth on the entire roster. Don’t be surprised if 1-2 of these players are replaced outright by free agent signings or post-cut additions.
CB5/6: Mike Hughes and Tre Flowers
Jeff Okudah should be back relatively soon, if the team is correct, and Clark Phillips just returned to practice. With Dee Alford in the driver’s seat for both the nickel corner job and possibly punt returner, there are likely two spots open and available.
Flowers has been filling in for Okudah at practice, so barring a reversal of fortune I’m guessing he’ll wind up taking one of those two spots. Hughes is a logical choice for the other, given that he has experience both at nickel and outside and has been involved in the punt returner competition, giving him the kind of utility you’d like to see from one of the last spots in your cornerback group.
Flowers may or may not be long for the roster when Okudah returns, and the Falcons will almost certainly keep Darren Hall, Cornell Armstrong, or another younger corner around on the practice squad. Barring a big shakeup or an injury—and it’s worth noting Hughes is working through something right now—I’d be willing to bet Hughes and Flowers will round out the depth chart.
S4: Hellams on wheels
I thought Hellams, owing to his terrific hitting and special teams value, was probably the favorite for this job so long as he played well in preseason. We’re only one week in, but it’s hard not to feel good about that prediction.
Hellams led all Falcons defenders in snaps and came away with an interception and some of better tackles of the evening, and that quality work and the role Marquice Williams has to be envisioning for him should earn him the fourth safety spot. Micah Abernathy or Lukas Denis could still steal it away—neither played poorly against Miami, and Denis got an interception of his own—but the Falcons picked Hellams in this draft with the hope that he can be an impactful reserve. If he keeps showing he can be that, Hellams ought to stick.
How do you see these battles shaking out?