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https://www.atlantafalcons.com/news/falcons-position-battles-four-intriguing-ones-to-watch-following-the-draft

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 11:39 AM

Falcons position battles: Four intriguing ones to watch following the draft

Unknown
Kelsey Conway

AtlantaFalcons.com reporter

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – With the 2019 NFL Draft in the books, it’s time to take a closer look at the Falcons’ roster, specifically some of the position groups.

The Falcons have vastly upgraded their offensive line this offseason through the draft and free agency. Atlanta has also added some key depth pieces at several other positions where the competition will be in full swing come training camp.

Based off the draft additions, here are some of the most intriguing position battles to watch this offseason:

Cornerback

Coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff knew they needed more depth at the cornerback. So, when the time came, they didn’t just draft one and check the box, they selected two: Kendall Sheffield in the fourth round and Jordan Miller in the fifth round. Neither Sheffield nor Miller will be expected to start with Desmond Trufant and Isaiah Oliver in place, but the battle for the No. 3 spot should be an intense one. Sheffield and Miller bring different styles to the group, something Dan Quinn likes. Sheffield’s biggest strength is his speed where Miller’s is his length and ability to make plays on the ball. Blidi Wreh-Wilson will also be in the mix as he’s improved each year he’s been with the Falcons. Wreh-Wilson saw action in three games for the Falcons last season. Then there’s Damontae Kazee who’s expected to be Atlanta’s nickel cornerback after spending the majority of last year starting at free safety.

Running back

Atlanta’s No. 1 option at running back was never in question heading into the draft. A healthy Devonta Freeman will be back in the lineup with Ito Smith backing him up in his second season. Smith proved he was more than capable of making an impact when his reps increased the moment Freeman was placed on injured reserve in October.  He finished his rookie season with 315 yards on 90 carries and four touchdowns. Atlanta drafted Qadree Ollison in the fifth round in hopes to get the power back they’ve long been in need of. He’ll compete with Smith for the No. 2 running back spot. The Falcons also added Kenjon Barner this offseason in free agency. Brian Hill remains on the roster as well and is someone who showed flashes of promise in the 2018 season. The Falcons also recently signed former Oregon running back Tony Brooks-James following rookie minicamp.

Offensive line

The No. 1 priority for the Falcons this offseason was to bolster the offensive line. Not only did the Falcons continue to address the guard position with the selection of Chris Lindstrom with the No. 14 overall pick, they also took care of the right tackle spot when they traded back into the first round to acquire Kaleb McGary. Atlanta re-signed Ty Sambrailo to a three-year extension this offseason and he’ll compete with McGary for the starting right tackle spot. Guards Jamon Brown and James Carpenter were the Falcons’ two biggest offseason acquisitions in free agency, with Brown, Carpenter and Lindstrom all expected to compete for the two starting spots. The only two sure bets at this point on Atlanta’s offensive line in terms of who will start are center Alex Mack and left tackle Jake Matthews.

Kick/punt returner

Will it be Marcus Green, Atlanta’s sixth-round draft pick who specializes in returning? Or will Kendall Sheffield and his blazing speed surprise new special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica and earn the job? There’s also Barner who has the experience Green and Sheffield don’t have yet. Justin Hardy was also re-signed this offseason and certainly showed he’s a reliable option last year. Regardless, Atlanta’s kick/punt returner spot is wide open at this point.

 

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24 minutes ago, B3TD said:

Good stuff. Man is it gonna be exciting seeing Neal, Allen and Kazee patrolling the middle of the field behind Debo

But:

Falcons roster review: A post-draft look at safety

If Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are healthy, nothing to worry about.

By Dave Choate May 15, 2019, 3:00pm EDT

We move past special teams, which has been transformed more or less wholesale, and into safety. The team did not do the same level of earth-shattering work here, but the questions that plague the position are at once both simpler and more troubling, because they rely on the availability of their two best players there.

Onward.

Starters

You’re looking at the same two starters the Falcons have employed since 2016, with a health-related twist.

Keanu Neal plays football like a gladiator plays tag, which means injury was going to be a factor for him at some point. He suffered an injury in Week 1 and missed the entire season, and while his rehab is going well by all accounts, we don’t yet know if he’ll be 100% Week 1, or what it would mean if he wasn’t. When healthy he’s one of the league’s better young strong safeties with his tone-setting physicality and ability, and if he’s back to form, the Falcons are all set at the position.

A similar story unfolded for Ricardo Allen, who had been durable and reliable before a catastrophic Achilles injury cost him most of the year. That double whammy decimated the Falcons’ backend, with Allen being a major loss because of his comfort helping to organize the defense, his ability to make plays on the ball and open field tackles when things went awry, and that aforementioned reliability. If he’s healthy he’s a chronically underrated defender, and if he’s all set, the Falcons are also all set at his position.

The problem is that we don’t know if either of these players will be fully healthy to start the season, with Allen’s Achilles ailment looming particularly large in my anxieties. The Falcons have quietly piled up safety depth all offseason long in the form of veterans J.J. Wilcox, Chris Cooper, and Afolabi Laguda, and they already had Sharrod Neasman and maybe-cornerback Damontae Kazee under contract. That suggests that they’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, which is smart.

If these two are healthy, as I suggested above, this is one of the league’s better safety duos and a major part of what has the potential to be a terrific 2019 Falcons secondary. The uncertainty is what’s killing me.

Reserves

As mentioned above, the Falcons have stripped their safety depth down to studs and rebuilt it.

If Kazee does stick at cornerback as the team has suggested, he’ll likely only occasionally mix in at safety, if at all. If not, though, it’s possible he’s the starter at free safety on Week 1, depending on Allen’s progress. Kazee wasn’t perfect there a year ago but was an aggressive ballhawk of a safety who was one of the team’s few defensive bright spots, so if the team ends up keeping him there, it’s an understandable decision and one that makes the safety group stronger.

From there, the options are less proven. Neasman turned in solid play down the stretch and is an affordable player with a well-rounded game that would seem to make him well-suited to be (at worst) the team’s fifth safety, but the Falcons have added three safeties since the offseason began, signalling they’re not going to lock him into a spot.

 

J.J. Wilcox is a thumper with the requisite ability against the run and a couple of seasons’ worth of starting experience, which makes him a solid addition to the group and a strong favorite to be Keanu Neal’s direct backup. His coverage skills won’t make you forget about Jordan Richards, however, and if he gets substantial run that could prove to be a problem as the season grinds on. As a proven veteran backup with some legitimately good play under his belt in the past, though, Wilcox makes sense.

The other two additions are wildcards in comparison. Chris Cooper has bounced around in his short NFL career to this point and hasn’t gotten any game action yet, making him pure projection for those of us trying to figure out this depth chart. The team has talked about him as if he could step in and approximate the role Damontae Kazee was meant to play last year, backing up Allen and playing nickel cornerback if the situation got dire, and his athleticism suggests the Falcons have something to work with. Whether he’ll fare well there or even has a particularly great shot of making the roster, especially if Kazee doesn’t make the full-time switch to corner, we just can’t say yet.

Afolabi Laguda feels like a practice squad candidate for this time given their other additions, but he has the size, raw speed, and physicality to be interesting over the long haul. The Falcons showed some interest in him during the 2017 pre-draft process, so I wouldn’t bet against him, but like Cooper we don’t have enough to go on to suggest he’s destined for much of anything just yet.

To round out the group, the Falcons have Ryan Neal, who offers physicality and potentially a little positional versatility in his own right, and former Kazee college teammate Parker Baldwin, who is a legitimately interesting player in his own right. It’s fair to say that Laguda, Neal, and Baldwin are probably fighting over (at most) a couple of practice squad spots when all is said and done, with Wilcox, Neasman and Cooper in the mix for a couple of backup spots.

Outlook

Everything depends on the health of Allen and Neal, if we’re being honest. The Falcons have set themselves up to have a real battle for backup jobs that hopefully the best 2-3 men will win, which will hopefully mean they aren’t scrambling madly to assemble depth in case of injury like they were in 2018, when Neasman had to return and offer some stability to the group. But if Allen and Neal aren’t healthy, and you’re turning to Kazee/Cooper and Wilcox/Neasman for multiple weeks, it’s going to put a dent in the defense’s outlook. That’s less a knock on those guys than an acknowledgement of just how important Allen and Neal are to making this defense work as best it can.

All we can do now is take a deep breath, hope for health, and hope that the fires of competition lead to the best possible depth chart at safety. The Falcons have enough big picture questions on defense to know that they can ill-afford to be without either of their starting safeties for very long.

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More good stuff Tim, but I agree, "That’s less a knock on those guys than an acknowledgement of just how important Allen and Neal are to making this defense work as best it can."

Obviously not really a controversial take. You're always gonna have a drop-off when you have big difference makers. No one just has premium starters sitting on their bench as backups, of course.

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57 minutes ago, B3TD said:

"That’s less a knock on those guys than an acknowledgement of just how important Allen and Neal are to making this defense work as best it can."

Some trepidation there on my part. These key members were severely wounded,

NFL medicine seems to work tho.

I hope these off-season guys are able to stand-in if needed.

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8 hours ago, NeonDeion said:

The problem was losing all 3 - Neal, Rico, Debo - just 1 and we woulda been fine 

Kazee can step in for Rico for sure

Neals backup? Debo backup?

I think we need to sign a proven vet

The rest of the depth positions look great 

Starting caliber depth at Safety,  CB and LB concern me. We've got 2 starters coming off season ending injury. I'd feel a heck of a lot better if we got someone that can start at a high level at MLB or one of the Safety positions. 

We'll have to hope they stay healthy 

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LB depth is still horrific. If we have to see Riley, Ish or Bruce Carter for significant snaps we will be in trouble.

Still not sure about outside pass rush. It will rely solely on Takk/Beasley. Clayborne is only a 3-4 sack guy unless he gets to play Chaz Green. Means is a massive unknown still. Our rookie is more so a DT than DE. 

Safety depth is still bad. Sure Kazee can play FS but then we have to rely on a mid round rookie to man the nickel. SS our backup options are even worse.

WR is sketchy past the top 3. Hardy is what he is at this point. Gage has done nothing. And the guy we drafted in the 6th round is a huge unknown.

Edited by PriMeTiiMe
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This is why I just don't worry with DQ. He rarely makes the same mistakes over and over again without taking measures to correct them. We've been so accustomed to this team taking a "good enough" approach when it came to problem areas. DQ has basically flooded the pipeline.

Sambrailo, Brown, Carpenter, Schweitzer, Lindstrom, McGary. That's four OL with starting experience in the NFL and two promising rookies fighting for three spots. 

Wreh-Wilson, Miller, Sheffield, Kazee all fighting for nickel snaps and to shake out the overall CB group as a whole. That's a lot of ability and differing playing styles. 

Freeman, Ito, Ollison, Hill, Barner, Brooks-James. This is going to be one of the most fun groups. From the lead dog showing he's still got it. The promising second year runner showing he deserves more snaps. The power back rookie. The redemption story trying to stick on the roster. The multi-purpose back trying to make the roster. And the undrafted rookie trying to prove his worth. You literally have it all with this group and could uncover a real gem. 

I'm excited to see these camp battles shake out. We have legit battles this year and it should be fun!

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4 hours ago, PriMeTiiMe said:

LB depth is still horrific. If we have to see Riley, Ish or Bruce Carter for significant snaps we will be in trouble.

Still not sure about outside pass rush. It will rely solely on Takk/Beasley. Clayborne is only a 3-4 sack guy unless he gets to play Chaz Green. Means is a massive unknown still. Our rookie is more so a DT than DE. 

Safety depth is still bad. Sure Kazee can play FS but then we have to rely on a mid round rookie to man the nickel. SS our backup options are even worse.

WR is sketchy past the top 3. Hardy is what he is at this point. Gage has done nothing. And the guy we drafted in the 6th round is a huge unknown.

This is a very....dour way of looking at things. 

LB: Given we play around 70% of snaps in the nickel, that's two LBs: Debo and Campbell. Foye is a fine third. Carter was actually solid when he played base snaps. But name any defense that if they lost a top five MLB, they'd be in good shape with his replacement. 

Pass rush: This is the great unknown and why DQ is betting on himself. It's time for first round picks to play like it. Clayborn is one of the more well rounded DEs we could have added. He's solid vs the run and provides consistent pressure. Means did the same down the stretch last year. I'm not overly worried about this group because I don't have much expectation from them. 

Safety: Uhh... Huh? Neal/Rico will start. Kazee can play FS. Wilcox and Neasman can play SS. Having torn my achilles and not had pro level care, I'd be very surprised if Rico isn't suiting up week one. Depth isn't an issue here, there is going to be some fun battles between Wilcox, Neasman, and Laguda. 

WR: We have three #1 caliber WRs, from high tier (Julio) to low tier (Sanu). Over 60% of offensive snaps last year were with Julio, Sanu, and Ridley. Throw in Hooper as a threat, why are you complaining about WR depth? It's about as good as it's going to get all things considered. Same with MLB, you lose Julio, Sanu, or Ridley, who's got a 4th WR that's capable of replacing any of those guys in the league? 

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