Well, it’s finally here Ladies and Gentlemen of The Cage…….Game Week! A new season dawns as the Falcons have their roster set (save some waiver wire pickups or last minute adjustments) and the men in red and black will be getting set to start off the season with their biggest rival, the hated New Orleans Saints. What a way to begin a new season filled with so much hope than on the road against your biggest rival with something to prove. Preseason isn’t the end-all-be-all and Mike Smith admitted to “trying” a lot of different stuff, but it surely gave fans a reason to hit the pause button on the “Super Bowl or Bust” hype. There are major questions abound as the Falcons travel to the New Orleans in week 1, and some of them start with the final 53 man roster, at least as it stands right now. This post will take a look at the final 53 man roster, as well as a brief look at what lies ahead in New Orleans…
QBs: Matt Ryan, Dominique Davis (2)
It was always a pretty safe lock that the men from Flowery Branch would keep Davis as the number 2 quarterback, even though he had a somewhat inconsistent preseason in his second year, he’s still got promise as a young QB. The question was always what they were going to do after the top two. Some felt that the Falcons would keep 7th round pick Sean Renfree as their 3rd QB on their roster and not risk sending him to the practice squad.
That decision was made somewhat easy by the unfortunate late injury to Renfree, as they had to put him on the injured reserve list. The question now is whether they will opt to sign a veteran backup as they did last year when they picked up Luke McCown. There’s not a lot out there after the first cuts. Only David Carr and Seneca Wallace come to mind, but are they worth a roster spot?
RBs: Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling, Bradie Ewing, Antone Smith, Josh Vaughan (6)
This is surely a first in the Smith / Dimitroff Era: keeping 6 total running backs. The first two are obvious locks in Jackson and Rodgers. The 1-2 punch that fans hope will keep defenses on their heels in 2013. Snelling was always a likely lock due to his extreme versatility and overall value to the team, including the all-important special teams, even though some felt that Snelling might have the target on his back from Josh Vaughn’s fantastic preseason camp.
Bradie Ewing seemed to be in doubt for awhile as Patrick Dimarco looked decent at times, but mainly there was concern about his long-term health. After suffering a season-ending ACL tear in his first preseason game, Ewing quickly made an exit to the trainer’s table very early in camp. As his health progressed, so too did his chances of keeping a spot. The last two are a very interesting dichotomy.
Many felt it would be an either-or regarding Antone Smith and Josh Vaughn. Smith has been the long-trusted special teams player, but Vaughan stole the show with his impressive preseason capped off by a spectacular 65-yard touchdown bolt. So they decided to keep both. It may simply be a trial run to see if Vaughan can takeover Smith’s special teams duties, because the future looks bright for the former undrafted free agent. Maybe they simply added a 6th RB when they gained a position from not carrying 3 QBs, as they did last year.
WRs: Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, Drew Davis, Kevin Cone (5)
After it seemed as though it could come down to the wire and have a different receiver lineup than 2012, it falls in line exactly as it was last year. Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Harry Douglas were always locks and it was believed that Drew Davis had a pretty strong hold on the #4 spot after an impressive start, even though finishing on an uneven keel. The final spot came down to Kevin Cone and undrafted free agent Darius Johnson. Cone had a decent preseason with a few catches, but Johnson stole the show in Tennessee with his amazing catch, juke, and jolt for a touchdown. He seemed to have playmaker written all over him.
Ultimately, this one has to be chalked up to special teams. Johnson is on the smaller side and Cone is likely better on special teams with his size and speed. So far, no team has claimed Darius Johnson and maybe the Falcons can hold onto him for next year, because of all the receivers not named Roddy or Julio, he might have the most long-term upside. Harry Douglas should be concerned in 2014 if 2013 isn’t stellar.
TEs: Tony Gonzalez, Chase Coffman, Levine Toilolo (3)
The writing was on the wall way back before mini-camp even started. The odd release / non-signing of dependable #2 tight end Michael Palmer signaled that the Falcons would always stick with Coffman and 4th round draft pick Toilolo after the 1st ballot Hall of Famer Gonzalez. Barring anything crazy, the Stanford TE would certainly get one spot to develop and Coffman the other after showing glimpses last season. While Coffman had an overall good preseason, Toilolo was a ghost in his first action as a pro. So far, neither has shown they’re ready to fill the jumbo-sized shoes of Gonzalez.
OL: Sam Baker, Lamar Holmes, Ryan Schraeder, Jeremy Trueblood, Justin Blalock, Garrett Reynolds, Harland Gunn, Peter Konz, Joe Hawley (9)
With few exceptions, the Falcons have kept 9 offensive lineman in the Smith / Dimitroff regime. The standard OL were obvious: Baker, Blalock, Konz, Reynolds, and Holmes. the OL generally had a very poor overall preseason, especially the right side of the line. However, it would be unfair and unjust to solely blame the new guy Holmes on the right. All the Falcons starting OL had issues at one point or another. They showed spurts of good (1st half vs. Ravens, 1st quarter vs. Titans), but generally has left fans full of panic.
Joe Hawley makes it another year as the Falcons backup center / guard, and his versatility surely helps in that arena. Harland Gunn is the big winner of the major battle between he, Phillpkeith Manley, and Jacques McClendon (who was picked up by the Jaguars). The final two who initially made the roster were Ryan Schraeder and Terren Jones. News came down today, however, that the men in red and black signed veteran OT Jeremy Youngblood and released Terren Jones (even though he may take Manley’s spot on the practice squad).
Schraeder deserves the chance to develop after a good season and the injury to Mike Johnson gave his chances a boost. Youngblood is an insurance policy in the same vein of a Will Svitek, a vet who’s started 84 games, but isn’t the biggest of names to sit on the sideline. As predicted a long time ago, this team will sink or swim with this group of offensive linemen.
DEs: Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman, Stansly Maponga (4);
DTs: Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Peria Jerry, Travian Robertson (4);
Swing Positions: Kroy Biermann, Cliff Matthews (2)
Dimitroff drafted two defensive ends and brought Umenyiora in during free agency in a major revamp to the Falcons defensive line. The former Giants DE slides into John Abraham’s old spot and that remains to be see whether he’ll at least match Abe’s production, but preseason has been hopeful. Massaquoi has had one of the most impressive preseasons of any player and should be getting a starting nod opposite Umenyiora. Biermann returns “offically” as a defensive end, but it’s becoming increasingly aware that he will probably be more of an outside linebacker / hybrid than a pure DE, and that’s music to most fans ears.
Goodman and Maponga obviously get the benefit of the doubt as fresh draft picks and Goodman, in particular, showed some promise in preseason. Maponga was likely never going to get back to full speed after a late injury in college. Perhaps Goodman will get some looks in 2013, but Maponga is a candidate for the inactive list as a rookie.
The defensive tackle position actually showed a good deal of promise in the preseason, with the most welcome news seeing Peria Jerry look as good as he has since being a 1st round draft pick in 2009. Babineaux showed he’s got plenty left in the tank and Peters had a pretty solid training camp as well. Travian Robertson got the nod again, but didn’t do much of anything in preseason even though many fans have high hopes for him. Cliff Matthews may be listed as a defensive end, but he’ll likely see more as a DT in Mike Nolan’s highly unpredictable scheme. This defensive line will be highly versatile, but there’s not a ton of girth on the line to occupy blockers, but that’s the standard for a Mike Smith defense in Atlanta.
LBs: Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent, Stephen Nicholas, Joplo Bartu, Paul Worrilow (5)
The rage of preseason has been those awesome undrafted free agents and fans hoping and praying that the Falcons would come to their senses and put both on the active roster, putting neither at risk of being poached from the practice squad. It may have been sheer luck, but Thomas Dimitroff may have saved his draft class early on after he chose not to draft a single linebacker in April’s NFL Draft. They were both longshots to even make the practice squad, but Bartu and Worrilow have not only played themselves in a roster spot, but possibly even playing time. They will have to earn their stripes on special teams, but if they show they can handle the big-time, they could play a big role in Nolan’s “amoeba” defense. Both have shown they can run, tackle, cover, and just “play ball.”
Even though Bartu and Worrilow are getting all the news and hype, they likely won’t see many pure defensive snaps for awhile. With the nickel likely being the main defense, it appears that either Akeem Dent or Stephen Nicholas will pair with Weatherspoon on anything other than 1st and 2nd downs. Both LB’s had up and down preseasons, and neither showed much progress in the pass game. A final wildcard is Biermann. While he is still listed as a DE, he might be moving into the #2 overall LB ahead of both Dent and Nicholas (he was listed as starting OLB in game #3). One final twist might be to see Zeke Motta play more of a safety / linebacker role as well. It’s way too early to call LB a strength due to Weatherspoon’s absence and recovery from injury, Biermann’s possible transition to LB, and Dent / Nicholas’ weaknesses in pass coverage. However, the potential is there to give Nolan the versatility he craves.
CBs: Asante Samuel, Desmond Trufant, Robert McClain, Robert Alford, Dominique Franks (5);
S: Thomas DeCoud, William Moore, Kemal Ishmael, Zeke Motta, Shann Schillinger (5)
The Falcons return vets Samuel, Moore, and DeCoud to a secondary that played a part in the Falcons 2012 success, the latter two earning their first Pro Bowl selections. As long as Samuel and Moore can stay healthy and DeCoud can learn to tackle, the Falcons should be solid again.
Of course the big news of the 2013 draft was the Falcons trading draft picks to move up and select Desmond Trufant and following that up with the selection of Robert Alford. The Falcons revamped their cornerback corps with two quick draft picks. They released Dunta Robinson and let both Brent Grimes and Chris Owens walk to other teams in free agency. Both definitely took their lumps in preseason, but also showed grit, toughness, and flashes of promise as well. Trufant gets the starting nod and Alford will likely take the dime back role behind McClain in the depth chart. Both are extremely talented, but also very young.
Robert McClain was the breakout player in 2013 and looks only to improve in his second year under Mike Nolan. He didn’t have the best of preseasons, but that can apply to many to most Falcons players. McClain still likely occupies the nickel role until further notice. Credit Dominique Franks for battling and seizing his roster spot despite heavy competition.
The backup safety spot is the biggest of surprises. The Falcons elected to keep 3 backup safeties: Kemal Ishmael, Zeke Motta, and Shann Schillinger. Schilliger makes a triumphant return to the team he was cut from only a year ago and much of that is probably due to his special teams work. Ishmael beat veteran Charles Mitchell in straight up battle for a final spot and Zeke Motta may in fact be that type of S / LB hybrid that many fans hoped for in 2013. Even though some will be inactive, it surely gives the Falcons youth and versatility on defense.
Matt Bryant, Matt Bosher, Josh Harris (3)
The specialists return to a Falcons unit that was among the best in the NFL. Bryant is the other Matty Ice, Bosher only keeps getting better, and Harris has been perfect so far in his long snaps.