By Matt Karoly
In less than two months, the Atlanta Falcons will embark on their fifth training camp under the guidance of Dan Quinn. That means camp battles take center stage in Flowery Branch, Georgia as the Brotherhood seeks the best 53 members for its return to playoff glory.
But despite being a group strengthened by competition, there are admittedly very few spots up for grabs given the current state of the Falcons roster. The team fortified the offensive line, secondary, and backfield in the draft.
Therefore, we can safely assume all 2019 draft picks will hold a place on the 53-man roster for at least the upcoming season. They also added five new pieces via free agency that are locks to make final cuts in Jamon Brown, James Carpenter, Adrian Clayborn, Tyeler Davison, and Luke Stocker.
Based on those two assumptions, the Brotherhood will walk into Minnesota in week one with at least 12 new faces. Roster turnover is real in the NFL and the Atlanta Falcons are no exception to that rule.
In addition to those moves, some faces returned from the 2018 team on one-year contracts, while others still linger by virtue of their draft status. However, when it comes to the latter group, their spot on the team has become tenuous at best.
Here are five Falcons who are on the roster bubble heading into the 2019 season (note: only veterans that have been on the team for at least the past two seasons were considered for this list):
RB Brian Hill
As mentioned earlier, the Falcons really went out of their way to address the running back room this offseason. While RB2 Tevin Coleman left for San Francisco, the team more than supplemented his loss with the additions of Kenjon Barner, Qadree Ollison, and Marcus Green.
That leaves Brian Hill’s future in Atlanta up for discussion. Despite limited opportunities in 2018, Hill made his presence felt in week 16 versus the Carolina Panthers (eight carries for 115 yards) as he salted the game away for the Falcons.
However, that performance did not solidify Hill’s standing as the RB3 as the team drafted Ollison in the fifth round to compete for the “closer” role. In order to win the job, Hill must prove his worth on special teams, something he had trouble doing during the Keith Armstrong era.
The hope for Hill is that things will be different under new special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica and the Falcons decide to roster five running backs in 2019. Otherwise, he may find himself off the team once again.
TE Eric Saubert
Like Hill, another member of the 2017 draft class may be playing on borrowed time in tight end Eric Saubert. Many hoped we’d see the former fifth round pick make a similar year two jump to the one fellow draft mate Damontae Kazee made in 2018.
However, that was not the case despite Saubert giving us glimmers of hope in training camp last year. But with those flashes never translating to game day, the team decided to sign the aforementioned Stocker to be the TE2 and brought back Logan Paulsen as veteran insurance.
Therefore, if Saubert fails to show the coaching staff any improvement this summer, his time in Atlanta may be up. It very well could come down to Hill or Saubert for the final roster spot.
WR Justin Hardy
This one may come as a surprise to some, but hear me out.
The Falcons initially let Hardy test free agency, only to bring him back on a one-year, veteran minimum contract. That should indicate right off the bat how the team and rest of the league view the four-year veteran.
Making matters worse for Hardy, the team brought in several intriguing college free agents in addition to the holdovers from last year’s undrafted class. In a recent article from The Athletic’s Jason Butt, wide receivers coach Raheem Morris refers to these players as “the clones” for their ability to mimic the skillset of the wide receivers ahead of them on the depth chart.
While Hardy is credited for playing all three receiver positions, the Falcons, according to Morris, have other guys in the building that exhibit similar characteristics to the team’s top three at the position. Russell Gage and Devin Gray bring the speed element vacated by the departure of Marvin Hall; Christian Blake is very reminiscent of Mohamed Sanu; and newcomers like Olamide Zaccheaus, Khalil Lewis, Shawn Bane Jr, and CJ Worton offer shades of what the Falcons used to have in Taylor Gabriel and Nick Williams.
Taking all this into consideration, Justin Hardy could wind up being the “surprise” cut come September.
LB Duke Riley
Unfortunately for the Falcons, the 2017 draft class appears to have missed the mark more times than not. Duke Riley is the latest example of this as he, too, finds his roster spot in jeopardy entering year three.
One of the more disappointing revelations of this past season was Riley’s inability to answer the call when Deion Jones went on IR after week one. Thankfully, 2018 sixth round pick Foye Oluokun did rise to the occasion, giving the Falcons three linebackers they feel comfortable with heading into 2019.
But outside of Jones, Oluokun, and De’Vondre Campbell, the rest of the linebacker depth chart is anyone’s best guess. The team brought back Bruce Carter and Kemal Ishmael on veteran minimum deals, so at the very least they have two experienced players to fall back on.
However, much like wide receiver, the Falcons also have a few undrafted players at linebacker that can replicate the skillsets of the top three. Former 2017 UDFA Jermaine Grace brings the sideline-to-sideline ability the team loses when Deion Jones is out, a skill Grace has already demonstrated at OTAs.
The other two names to keep an eye on are Alabama A&M’s Yurik Bethune and UAB’s Tre’ Crawford. Both players fit the description of a prototypical SAM linebacker and each have stood out thus far.
It only takes one of them to stick for Riley to be pushed closer to the unemployment line.
SAF Sharrod Neasman
This one hurts the most because I don’t know what more Sharrod Neasman can do to lock up a roster spot. After the Falcons elected not to tender Neasman after the 2017 season, the 2016 UDFA had a brief layover in New Orleans before returning to Atlanta in week four to bail the team out of the Jordan Richards debacle.
Richards proved inadequate in the role of Keanu Neal fill-in and it’s no coincidence the defense began to improve once Neasman took over the majority of snaps at strong safety. Per Pro Football Focus, Neasman checked out as the fourth highest graded safety in the NFC South last year.
Seriously, what more do the Falcons want from their fourth safety?
Clearly, whatever it is, they believe former Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox can provide it as the team guaranteed $200,000 of Wilcox’s salary in 2019 and already inserted him into Neasman’s backup strong safety role to begin the offseason program. As a result, Neasman has been relegated to a rotation with Chris Cooper at free safety, a role that fits Cooper’s skillset much better than Neasman’s.
Factor in Cooper’s versatility to play in the slot and Neasman once again faces an uphill battle to stick with the Falcons.
Bonus Content: 53-man Roster Projection
So where does this leave the Falcons roster? The following is my way-too-early 53-man roster projection:
- QB (2): Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub
- RB (5): Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison, Marcus Green, Brian Hill
- WR (6): Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Olamide Zaccheaus, Russell Gage, Devin Gray
- TE (3): Austin Hooper, Luke Stocker, Logan Paulsen
- OL (9): Jake Matthews, Jamon Brown, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, Ty Sambrailo, Wes Schweitzer, James Carpenter, Matt Gono
- DL (9): Takk McKinley, Grady Jarrett, Deadrin Senat, Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Jack Crawford, Tyeler Davison, John Cominsky, Justin Zimmer*
- LB (6): Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Foye Oluokun, Kemal Ishmael, Jermaine Grace, Tre’ Crawford
- CB (6): Desmond Trufant, Isaiah Oliver, Damontae Kazee, Kendall Sheffield, Jordan Miller, Blidi Wreh-Wilson
- SAF (4): Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, J.J. Wilcox, Chris Cooper
*until Ra’Shede Hageman returns from suspension in week three
Photo from MSN.com