Here’s who is trending up and down as we get closer to a first preseason game that may blow all that up.
In an offseason of uncertainty, one of the fun things to do is to track how our takes have evolved over time and how concrete our collective assumptions about the Falcons have proven to be. We’ve had more than a few of them blow up thus far thanks to training camp, and preseason and looming roster cutdowns will surely shake our most deeply held thoughts about players and lineup choices in the weeks ahead.
So now’s a good time to expose ourselves to future ridicule by noting where we think things are trending, not only for the larger roster but also specific players. Normally we’d be putting something resembling a 3 up, 3 down article ogether after a game, but I think we’ve seen enough to this point to have some clear candidates here for who is trending up and who really could use a strong preseason slate before Falcons vs. Titans on Friday night. Kevin Knight will be hitting us with his roster projection coming up and we’ll talk the presumed status of battles for starting jobs later this week, so this won’t be your last chance to boldly proclaim along with us that something is true that may very well not be true in 5-7 days.
We’ll see if one week of preseason action is enough to blow up these assumptions or not, but here we go.
On the rise
The outside linebacker group is unsettled, to put it mildly. Dante Fowler’s return is going to clarify things a bit because he is going to effectively be a starter and probably play more snaps than anyone else there, assuming he’s healthy, but there’s plenty of playing time to go around and no clear-cut top options beyond Fowler.
That’s why I tend to think Ogundeji making the most of his chances thus far bodes really well for him. Very few of us (citation possibly needed) expected Ogundeji to even be in the mix for a significant role in his first season, given that he’s a rookie in a crowded if not exactly talent-laden position group. The fact that he’s been taking quite a few first team reps without Fowler around means at worst, he should be able to position himself as a significant piece of the rotation at outside linebacker if he isn’t a mess in preseason games, and it’s possible if unlikely that he’ll actually wind up starting alongside Fowler. Given my expectations for his rookie year and where he’s at already, Ogundeji is trending in the right direction, and his 2021 ceiling is worth watching.
I think a common assumption coming out of the draft was that Dalman would duke it out with Matt Hennessy for the starting center job, but Hennessy appears to have already run away with that gig in the early going. The question was whether Dalman would figure into the battle at left guard or simply take on the reserve center role, and the answer at the moment is that he’s doing the former.
Dalman was a player Arthur Smith specifically called out last week as a pleasant surprise, saying he’s effectively inserted himself into a battle that otherwise might have just been Josh Andrews’ job to lose. The fact that he’s not merely a forgotten man in the center competition but looking good enough to earn reps at left guard tells you his versatility will make him a terrific reserve at minimum, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want Dalman or Mayfield to win the left guard job and start learning on the job in 2021. Even if he doesn’t win the job outright, Dalman should figure in as a top reserve at center and guard, and his future looks bright.
When he joined the team, I had Moreau penciled in as a reserve until I saw what the coaching intended to do with him, something several fans suggested to me was dumb. Every indication to this point is that yeah, I was dumb not to think he’d be starting.
Moreau just keeps picking up steam and has spent pretty much all of training camp as the starter opposite A.J. Terrell, and that’s where I’d expect him to start the season. Isaiah Oliver and Darren Hall are likely battling for nickel duties and Kendall Sheffield, Avery Williams and Chris Williamson fighting for the last 1-2 spots on the depth chart coming out of the summer, but Moreau appears as close to locked in as you reasonably can be before the first preseason game has even been played. Hopefully he can be stone solid as a starter and help this Falcons secondary improve in 2021.
There are a lot of worthy candidates beyond the three above for this, including Jaylinn Hawkins, who has done a lot of eye-catching work in practice the past two weeks.
In need of a leap
A.J. McCarron and Feleipe Franks
I’m cheating a little bit here, but we’re going to treat both backup quarterback options like one man because my broad concerns about the backup job encompass both of them.
Neither McCarron nor Franks has stepped up and truly seized the job. Both have had flashes—Franks of a tremendous live arm, McCarron with some nice passes to Atlanta’s tight ends—but neither one currently inspires as a reserve option for Matt Ryan. On one hand, Ryan’s durability is a big part of his consistent success, and obviously there isn’t a quarterback you’d feel good about handing the keys to post-draft if he did get hurt anyways. On the other hand, I’d like to feel less consumed by a tempest of despair at the mere thought of that happening than I do right now, with McCarron mostly because of his track record and with Franks mostly because he has quite a bit of work to do.
Preseason action will be important for both guys, and will give Franks his longshot opportunity at unseating McCarron if he can truly impress. At this point I fully expect McCarron to keep the job, but nothing that’s happened this summer has made me wildly excited about that possibility.
We’ve suggested all spring and summer that Sheffield needed a strong August to ensure he made this roster. Terrell and Moreau appear set as starters, Oliver, Darren Hall and Avery Williams all seem very likely to make the roster, and Chris Williamson has been impressive thus far in training camp. Sheffield’s fast and obviously has talent, but he’s running out of time to put the pieces together and seize a major role in Atlanta.
That’s why the news that he’s out for an indeterminate amount of time with an undisclosed injury means we can’t help but put him here. Sheffield needs to be on the field impressing at corner and as a potential gunner option on special teams to lock up a spot, and with crowds in both groups, any extended absence is really going to hurt his chances. Hopefully he’s not out for long and can get in the conversation for a spot by Week 2 of preseason.
This could look foolish in a real hurry if Mayfield comes out and dominates at right tackle in preseason action, or if he pushes his way back into the left guard competition I figured he’d be a prominent part of. At the moment, though, it’s hard not to see Mayfield slotting in as a reserve primarily at right tackle, because he isn’t playing the left side, hasn’t gotten much of any time at guard and saw Willie Beavers take first-team snaps ahead of him in last Saturday’s big Mercedes-Benz practice and again on Monday. Preseason is going to be absolutely critical for him at this point.
Uncertainty is such a feature of this offseason with all the new faces on the coaching staff and on the roster that burying Mayfield, who did run as the first-string right tackle for quite a while with McGary out, would be equal parts foolish and premature. There’s no point in denying that at this exact moment, though, Mayfield does not appear to be tracking to start anywhere on this offensive line. Much can obviously change in the next three weeks. but right now the arrow is pointing down on his fortunes heading into the 2021.
I’m sure your lists have some different names than mine. Go ahead and share yours and let’s get your predictions for how the first preseason game changes things here.