Written by: Joe Carlino @joecarlino14
The Falcons 2018 season did not end the way the organization wanted, with injuries and close finishes going the other direction leading to a 7-9 finish. However, while they missed the playoffs, they did finish second in their division, only losing twice to the Saints while sweeping the Panthers and Buccaneers. In the offseason, the team let go of all three coordinators, re-hired former OC Dirk Koetter, and also appointed head coach Dan Quinn as the defensive coordinator. Atlanta recently opened up training camp due to having an extra preseason game this year (they play the Broncos in the Hall of Fame game August 1st on NBC), so while they have over 90 individuals currently vying for a roster spot, here’s my prediction on who will be part of the 53-man roster when the team prepares to kick off their season against the Minnesota Vikings.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub
This is one position which really needs no defense. Ryan has been the model of consistency in terms of availability, only missing two games in 2009. Since then, he’s always started games for the Falcons, and in two of the last three years, he’s played like an MVP-caliber quarterback, even taking home the honors in 2016. Schaub behind him all this time proves the Falcons are confident in what they have here, which is why they always pass up chances to draft a replacement.
Running Back: Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith, Qadree Ollison
The return of Freeman is something Falcons fans are definitely looking forward to. Last year was unfortunate for him, and even he’s admitted to such, also attesting that being back on the field with his brothers is “an amazing feeling”. In his absence, now-49ers back Tevin Coleman and “The Judge” Ito Smith took responsibilities in the run game, performing adequately. Atlanta appeared to address the loss of Coleman in free agency by drafting Ollison out of Pittsburgh in the fifth round, and if he’s anything like the scouting reports say, he’ll be called upon for those short-yardage situations and most likely will dominate those matchups.
Wide Receiver: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Justin Hardy, Russell Gage, Marcus Green
The top three receivers for Atlanta are no-brainers. Jones is the best receiver in the NFL by far, averaging 80 catches and 1,400 receiving yards for the last five seasons, something the legendary Jerry Rice never did. Sanu is arguably the best to count on for short-yardage situations, especially considering his nickname in college was “Man Hands” because of his performance on the JUGS machine. Ridley was incredible in his rookie campaign, and with Jones/Sanu in front of him to provide assistance and mentorship, his ceiling is only getting higher. Hardy and Gage have been in Atlanta for years now and do make plays when called upon, so they’re reliable targets in the passing game. Look for Green to make a name for himself in return duties more so than offense.
Tight End: Austin Hooper, Luke Stocker, Eric Saubert, Logan Paulsen
Hooper is entering his fourth year in the league, and in each year has found new elements to his game to continue the relationship and trust between him and Ryan. It remains to be seen how he’ll be utilized with Dirk Koetter running the offense now, but fans need to remember that when Koetter was in Atlanta, he had the greatest tight end in the game in Tony Gonzalez on the roster. As for those behind Hooper, reports say Stocker will be more of a run-blocking tight end who might play fullback in some instances, and Saubert/Paulsen have been with Atlanta long enough to make some plays when their number is called.
Offensive Line: Jake Matthews, James Carpenter, Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary, Ty Sambrailo, Jamon Brown, Wes Schweitzer, Matt Gono
I want to make this clear with the offensive line prediction: this is who I believe will be the starting five when Atlanta travels to Minnesota to kick off the regular season. Matthews is a heck of a talent protecting Matt Ryan’s blind side, which is why he was rewarded with an extension last offseason. Carpenter was signed in the offseason to replace retiring guard Andy Levitre, so his performance is TBD. However, he’s got two incredible players to work with, having Matthews to his left and Alex Mack to his right, so the left side of the line should be anchored nicely. The real question is the right side of the offensive line, which was addressed in the draft in Lindstrom and McGary. I do have my concerns about both, but from what I’ve seen in scouting reports and highlight reels, they have more positives than negatives, especially Lindstrom, who had 363 pass-blocking attempts and didn’t allow a sack or quarterback hit. That’s impressive.
Defensive Line: Vic Beasley, Jr., Takk McKinley, Adrian Clayborn, Grady Jarrett, Jack Crawford, Deadrin Senat, Tyeler Davison, John Cominsky, Ra’Shede Hageman, Allen Bailey
This is an important year for Beasley, who hasn’t quite lived up to expectations and has many people wondering if his 15.5-sack 2016 campaign was a fluke. McKinley definitely has more positives than negatives, and I for one like his mindset a lot because who motivated him to be his best. Returning Clayborn will provide some rotational methods, and he also just won a Super Bowl on Atlanta’s turf. And then there’s Jarrett, who just signed a four-year, $68 million extension on the heels of being a dominant force in the run and pass game. Crawford was hurt early last season, so he’s looking to bounce back for the Falcons this year, and Senat showed up when needed last year. As for the offseason signings, it’s interesting about Davison, but given he was a Saint, that can play to Atlanta’s advantage during those matchups since he’s used to the deafening tone of the Superdome. Cominsky was selected in the fourth round of this year’s draft, so while he might not see the field a lot, expect him to contribute when his number is called. Bailey was recently signed following the unfortunate injury to Michael Bennett on day one of camp, and he is coming off a career year in Kansas City, with six sacks, two forced fumbles, and a league-leading four fumble recoveries.
Linebacker: Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Foye Oluokun, Bruce Carter, Kemal Ishmael, Duke Riley
Getting Jones back at 100% is critical for Atlanta, as he’s easily the second-best linebacker in his division (can’t deny the greatness of Kuechly). His ability to cover sideline-to-sideline is unparalleled, and he brings about Bobby Wagner comparisons, which is good considering Dan Quinn coached Wagner. Campbell has been reliable in his tenure, yet doesn’t get the recognition he should for being a force in the middle of the field. Plus, his play recognition skills are highly impressive. Oluokun and Ishmael are very reliable backup players, with Ishmael playing a multitude of positions and being ready, willing, and able to answer anything his coaches ask of him. And as much as Falcons fans bash Riley, his main problem is secure tackling, which is why he’s down so far on the depth chart.
Secondary: Desmond Trufant, Isaiah Oliver, Damontae Kazee, Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, Chris Cooper, Kendall Sheffield, Blidi-Wreh Wilson, Jordan Miller, Sharrod Neasman
Getting Allen and Neal back is huge for a Falcons secondary which went MIA following both being placed on IR within the first three weeks of last season. Trufant’s still the No.1 corner in the Falcons depth chart, and Oliver will be tasked with shadowing the opponent’s No.2 receiver following the release of Robert Alford. Of course, can’t forget about “Krazy Kazee”, who led the league in interceptions last season and is poised to be the team’s nickelback corner moving forward. Sheffield was selected in the fourth round of this year’s draft, and as a former track star, he can keep pace with some of the faster opponents in this league. Wilson and Neasman have been in Atlanta since 2016, so they’re always ready if needed. Reports say, Miller, who’s a rookie like Sheffield, might be a hidden gem based on performance in OTAs and minicamp, but his real test comes during the regular season.
Specialists: Giorgio Tavecchio, Matt Bosher, Josh Harris
Atlanta’s specialist unit has only one major change from last season, and that was their decision to part ways with “Money” Matt Bryant earlier this offseason. However, from what I’ve seen, Tavecchio might be the best answer Falcons fans need in the aftermath. Bosher’s still our punter and will handle kickoff duties, and Harris is still his anchor upfront.