Tag:Robert James
Posted on: August 13, 2010 4:08 pm

mock roster, pre-exhibition edition

The Falcons released their first depth chart this week, heading into the first preseason game tonight against the Chiefs.  The first one never means much, as much of it is typically based largely on the prior season.

As an example, Garrett Reynolds is listed as a backup at right tackle while Jose Valdez is listed as a backup at right guard.  That's how they practiced last season (with Valdez on the practice squad).  But in camp, Reynolds has slid inside to guard while Valdez has played outside. 

But I digress...  here's the pre-exhibition version of the mock 53-man opening day roster and practice squad:

Quarterback:  Matt Ryan, Chris Redman, John Parker Wilson

Running back:  Michael Turner, Jerious Norwood, Jason Snelling

Fullback:  Ovie Mughelli, Dan Klecko

Tight End:  Tony Gonzalez, Justin Peelle, Keith Zinger

Wide Receiver:  Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, Harry Douglas, Kerry Meier, Brian Finneran

Offensive line, starters:  Sam Baker, Justin Blalock, Todd McClure, Harvey Dahl, Tyson Clabo

Offensive line, backups:  Will Svitek, Mike Johnson, Garrett Reynolds, Joe Hawley (Quinn Ojinnaka = suspended)

Defensive end:  John Abraham, Jamaal Anderson, Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury, Chauncey Davis

Defensive tackle:  Peria Jerry, Corey Peters, Trey Lewis, Thomas Johnson (Jonathan Babineaux = suspended)

Linebacker:  Mike Peterson, Curtis Lofton, Stephen Nicholas, Sean Weatherspoon, Coy Wire, Spencer Adkins (Robert James = suspended)

Cornerback:  Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes, Chris Owens, Chevis Jackson, Dominique Franks

Safety:  Erik Coleman, Thomas DeCoud, William Moore, Brian Williams, Shann Schillinger

Specialists:  Matt Bryant, Michael Koenen, Joe Zelenka

Practice squad:  RB Dimitri Nance, WR Brandyn Harvey, TE Michael Palmer, OL Jose Valdez, DE Emmanuel Stephens, DT Vance Walker, LB Bear Woods, S Rafael Bush

Notes on the three suspended players: 

After the game against the Steelers, the coaching staff will evaluate the film and make the decision:  either Trey Lewis or Thomas Johnson will have to go.

For this list, Quinn Ojinnaka isn't making the roster anyway.  But the team will wait the extra week while he is suspended (he won't count towards the roster) before making the move.  Odds are that another team will pick him up off of waivers, so they'd rather wait in case someone gets hurt rather than lose him prematurely.

Robert James is out four weeks.  At the moment, he wouldn't make the roster anyway - but that could easily change if he plays well in the four exhibition games.  He's locked in a battle for the #6 LB spot with Spencer Adkins.

Adkins has blazing speed, but can he really play linebacker?  He's improving in practice, but so is James. It will be a close call between them, and the team will wait the full four weeks to see how Adkins progresses before making the final decision.

Unusual inclusions: 

Brian Finneran is listed as making the initial roster because Michael Jenkins is likely to be unavailable for the opener.  But otherwise, Finn is in that Old Yeller stage.  We love him, but he's old, slow, and injury prone.  Sooner or later it will be time for Smitty to put him down.  It's only a question of when. 

At that point, add one of the prospects to the roster, with at least one more on the practice squad.

The media speculation is that Brian Williams is a strong contender for the starting CB spot.  I have my doubts about that.  The guy hasn't even been cleared for contact in practice yet.  It's a tall order to expect him to beat out Grimes, Owens, Jackson and Franks in just four weeks.  He may not be ready to play at all - Von Hutchins was farther along at this point last season but ended up being released with an injury settlement.

For now, I'll go along with Smitty's reassurances that he'll be ready to go in September.  But I'm putting him in as a safety rather than the overcrowded CB position. 

Chauncey Davis is still on the list, but he's on the hot seat.  In terms of playing time, Biermann passed him last season and Sidbury is likely to do it this season.  Davis has a very high salary for a #5 DE, which makes him expendable.

Emmanuel Stephens has come on strong in camp and will try his best to take that spot away from Davis.  If Davis continues to underachieve and Stephens cranks it up, it just might happen. 

But for now, Davis gets the benefit of the doubt. For his efforts, Stephens makes the practice squad list.

Noteworthy cuts:

Eric Weems faces competition at WR and also at PR/KR.  But Jerious Norwood, Dominique Franks, and others can also handle the return jobs, so Weems will have to win his roster spot purely on his skills at WR.  He may be the odd man out before opening day.

Brett Romberg is one of Boudreau's guys.  But his primary position is center.  McClure is still the starter, and the Falcons just drafted Hawley as the center of the future.  Romberg can also play guard, but so can Mike Johnson, Garrett Reynolds, Hawley, and practice squad prospect Jose Valdez.  In four weeks the music stops, and Romberg doesn't have a chair.

Quinn Ojinnaka is a holdover from the Jim Mora days.  He's still around because of his versatility, but it should be noted that he wasn't brought here specifically because he fit Smitty/Mularkey/Boudreau's prototype for a lineman. 

The team needs a reliable backup at left tackle.  Last season, Svitek was Boudreau's choice as the #2 ahead of Ojinnaka.  So at least for now, pencil in Svitek as the guy.  Ojinnaka will have to step up and win the job.  Otherwise, as of the Tuesday following the Steelers game, you'll not see nothing of The Mighty Quinn.

Jose Valdez is still practice squad eligible.  He's coming on strong, but the team has no vested interests at risk here (meaning no draft pick involved - if they lose him, all they've lost is an undrafted practice squad prospect).  So they'll likely try to stash him back on the squad for another season, calling him up if someone gets hurt.

Vance Walker is also practice squad eligible.  He's not likely to last the season without being plucked by another team.  For that matter, he might not even clear waivers for the Falcons to put him on the squad in the first place.  But they'll try.

Robert James is still eligible for the squad as well, but he's suspended for the first four weeks.  If he and Adkins both do well in preseason, look for Adkins to win the roster spot with James being added to the practice squad in week five.

Matt Giordano was a strong contender to replace Antoine Harris, Charlie Peprah and Jamaal Fudge as a special teams oriented backup safety.  But drafting Shann Schillinger turns up the heat on Giordano.  And if Brian Williams does get added to the mix at safety, it's no contest.  Who would you rather keep as your # 4 -  a veteran who has never made it playing in the secondary and has only been a special teamer for his entire career, or a veteran who can start at either cornerback or safety if needed?  Giordano loses out to both Schillinger and Williams.

Posted on: May 13, 2010 2:59 am

what we learned from minicamp

The first thing that jumps out about the rookies is that 2010 is looking like the deepest draft year we've seen in a long time.  I haven't finalized a list of the top 32 or 35 names for a "mock eighth round" yet, but I do believe that the top undrafted prospects this year will have more NFL success than the sixth or seventh rounders from 2007 or 2005.  Maybe even better than the fifth rounders.

For the Falcons, even the tryout kids looked good in minicamp.  The top two made the grade and got signed.  More might have been signed, but the team only had two available roster spots.

One of those was SW DeKalb / University of Richmond QB Eric Ward.  I posted the NFL Draft Scout dot com blurb on him in the misc notes thread before minicamp.   He needs to work on going through his reads faster, learning the offense, etc, but he has all the attributes you'd want in a QB project -  strong arm, pretty good accuracy, leadership (led Richmond to the FCS national championship in 2008), etc, etc.

The odd thing is that the Falcons now have five QBs on the roster.  It's not surprising for teams to carry four heading into training camp, but five is a little unusual.  If all five are still around at the end of July, it's likely that the team will have two sets of two working drills with the WRs while the fifth works with the RBs or TEs.

The alternative...  this could be the end of the line for D.J. Shockley.  He may once again be competing for his football life during OTAs.

Early call:  Ward makes the practice squad.

Dan Klecko is indeed working with the RBs, at least for now.  If that continues during OTAs, he's a real contender for the #2 FB spot (formerly held by Verron Haynes). 

There are three candidates for that #5 spot in the offensive backfield.  Klecko is a pure fullback (outside of the fact that he also plays on the defensive line).  Antone Smith is a pure running back.  Dimitri Nance is a Jason Snelling-like hybrid.  Smith and Nance are both strong prospects, and Klecko has a few Superbowl rings for his past work at fullback.

Early call:  it's a three way toss-up.  Give the initial edge to Nance for his versatility, but any of the three could take the job.  In training camp, Nance and Smith will have to show they can block.

It's not just Kerry Meier and Ryan WolfeBrandyn Harvey and Tim Buckley (the Alcorn State QB that the Falcons are playing at WR) will also be people to watch in camp.  And the returning Falcons prospects (Eric Weems, Troy Bergeron, Andy Strickland) are stepping up their own game in the face of the added competition. 

Atlanta had a whole bunch of prospects in camp last year to try to replace Laurent Robinson.  It didn't go so well, and the front office was already working out free agents even before Harry Douglas got hurt. 

This year's group may not be speed demons, but they have great hands.  They also have good size:  Harvey is 6-4, 205.  Wolfe is 6-2, 210.  Meier is 6-2, 224.  Added bonus:  Mularkey might be able to work in some trick plays or Wildcat stuff with them, as Meier and Buckley are both former QBs.

Early call:  Weems gets replaced.  Meier makes the roster.  If Harvey, Wolfe and Buckley show something in the preseason games, Brian Finneran gets replaced too. 

Not too much to say about the offensive and defensive lines, as minicamp and OTAs are strictly non-contact.  We won't get a real look at their skills until training camp opens at the end of July.

The one thing I will note about the offensive linemen is that these guys are BIG.  The days of the Alex Gibbs zone-blocking scheme are obviously long gone.  I won't knock it - that system was the ONLY way the team could have gone in 2004 to have a chance of being competitive up front.   It paid off, as that team went 11-5 and made it to the NFC Championship game.  But even Bobby Petrino knew we had to get bigger up front once that system was out the door. 

No more 285 pound tackles or 275 pound centers.  Our starting five:   Sam Baker lists at 6-5, 312.  Justin Blalock = 6-4, 333.  Todd McClure = 6-1, 301.  Harvey Dahl = 6-5, 308.  Tyson Clabo = 6-6, 332.  Backups:  Garrett Reynolds = 6-7, 310.  Mike Johnson = 6-5, 312.  Quinn Ojinnaka = 6-5, 305.  Will Svitek = 6-6, 300.   Jose Valdez (guard prospect) = 6-6, 310.

The only players under 6-4 or under 300 pounds are the backup centers and center prospects.  And even they are bigger than the centers we had in the past.  Brett Romberg and Joe Hawley are 298 and 297 pounds.  A few years ago, McClure had to bulk up just to get up to 290.

Early call:  we keep nine linemen, just like last season and the start of the 2008 season.  Unless someone gets hurt, the starters will be the same as last year.  Garrett Reynolds, Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley take three of the four backup spots.   I'll give Quinn Ojinnaka the early nod for the last spot, beating out Will Svitek and Brett Romberg.

It was meaningless without contact, but Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann showed some intensity during minicamp.  They know the team is counting on them to join John Abraham as a trio of pass rush DEs.  As had been reported earlier, Jamaal Anderson has bulked up a bit for more duty as a swing DE/DT.  He's still listed at 283, but best guess is that he's now around 290-292.

Early call:  the roster will have the same five DEs as last year.  Jamaal will still be the "official" starter, but don't read too much into that - it only means he'll be out there for the first play at 1st and 10.  Beer Man and El Sid will get the bulk of the pass rush reps.

Not much to say about the DT spots.  Peria Jerry did some rehab work but was limping afterwards.  Jonathan Babineaux was held out with a shoulder problem.  Thomas Johnson got banged up in one session and was held out of two others.  And it's already May and we haven't heard a peep about Babs' case going to trial.  His suspension is a certainty, but it might not come at the start of the year.  That would make things really, really awkward for the coaching staff at the DT spots. 

Early call:  the team will keep telling us Jerry is right on schedule with his rehab work and will be ready for the start of training camp.  But when July 29 comes around, they'll have him take it easy for the first week and may even sit him out the first preseason game. 

If the commish waits until after the trial to suspend Babs, we go with four DTs.  Only one of Trey Lewis, Thomas Johnson, and Vance Walker will make the initial roster.  Lewis would be the most likely if he plays like he's healthy, but he'll have to step it up and prove himself.  So I'll give the early nod to Walker instead.

At linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon worked some at both OLB spots in minicamp and did well for his first time out.  Spencer Adkins and Robert James stepped up strongly too. 

Last year's trio of undrafted LB prospects (Derek Nicholson, Brock Christopher, Rashad Bobino) didn't make the practice squad.  Bear Woods and Weston Johnson hope to do better this year.  Woods may be the most interesting personality of this year's rookie prospects.  He wants to become a minister after his football days are over.

Here's a good look at why he's nicknamed "Bear"...

Early call:  Mike Peterson's roster spot is safe, as he's the best candidate for the #2 MLB spot as well as rotating at either OLB spot.  But 'Spoon likely starts right away.  If Adkins and James keep it up, the coaches may use the last at-large roster spot to keep all seven LBs.

I was very happy that the team re-signed Brian Williams.  I noted at the time that his real value isn't at CB but as extra depth at safety.  (Hmmm... would you rather have Williams or Charlie Peprah as your #4?)  

Later, the Falcons signed Matt Giordano in free agency, drafted Shann Schillinger, and signed prospects Rafael Bush and Gabe Derricks as undrafted free agents.  That fourth safety spot will be a nice battle during training camp.

It's tough to say whether this year's group of contenders for the #4 spot is better than last year's group (which included returning safeties Antoine Harris and Jamaal Fudge, plus prospects Marcus Paschal and Eric Brock).  They're competing for a spot that will hopefully be a fixture on the inactive list.

But there's an odd similarity in that the most experienced contender is a CB who also plays safety and who is attempting to return from injury.  This year it's Williams.  Last year, it was Von Hutchins.

Giordano is the only one of this year's crop after Williams that has any NFL experience at all.  Dimitroff is really stoked about Schillinger, noting he's "a safety slash special teams guy with a lot of speed and a lot of toughness".   D-Led is really big on prospect Rafael Bush.  And D-Led has been right more often than not lately, so I have to take him seriously and keep an eye on his guy.

Early call:  Schillinger beats out Giordano and makes the roster.  Williams won't be ready to go in September and will get the injury waiver just like Hutchins did last season. 

Things only get interesting at CB if someone gets hurt or if Williams shows up healthy for camp and can make all the changes of direction required at cornerback.  Otherwise, there are seven other CBs on the roster to fill five positions.  Two of them are undrafted free agents:  Dominique Daniels and Daylan Walker, the other walk-on from minicamp that got signed.

Early call:  without Williams being 100%, it's a no-brainer.  Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes, Chris Owens, Chevis Jackson, Dominique Franks take the five roster spots.  Daniels and Walker are simply competing to make it to training camp. 

Too early to say anything yet on the specialists.  Michael Koenen has his spot locked up already, but the long snapper and place kicker spots are up for grabs.

Early call:  I'll give the May nod to Justin Drescher at long snapper just to get his name out there.  He really is a contender to make the roster, while incumbent Joe Zelenka was really only our #3 choice last season.  And I'll roll with Steven Hauschka at PK, just to point out to D-Led that Matt Bryant isn't a shoo-in and to note that rookie Garrett Lindholm will have to step up and win the job.  It isn't his for the taking.  But in truth, the jobs could go to any of the three kickers and either of the long snappers. 

There are candidates all over the board for the last roster spot.  It could easily be a seventh LB, tenth DB, sixth WR, tenth offensive lineman, tenth defensive lineman, or sixth RB/FB.  The player will make the roster mainly for his performance on special teams.  It won't get as much attention from the local media as the battle for the 4th safety spot, 4th DT spot, etc, but it may be the most strongly contested spot on the entire roster.

Early call:  I'll make life easier on the coaches and go with Robert James as a seventh linebacker, beating out the extra DT or offensive lineman.   The other likely contenders are Shann Schillinger (if Matt Giordano wins the #4 safety spot) or an extra WR out of Wolfe / Harvey / Buckley / Bergeron.

Bottom line...  the main thing I noted about the roster heading into 2009 was that it was the deepest Falcons roster I could remember.  They needed every bit of that depth.

And since no one left in free agency and only long snapper Mike Schneck retired, this year's roster moves and drafts have all been for upgrades rather than mere replacements.   The 2010 roster will be even deeper than last year's version.  That's just plain scary.

Posted on: August 11, 2009 11:19 pm

mock roster, v2.0 (training camp)

I did a mock 53-man roster right before minicamp in May.  We're now a week into training camp, and the team still hasn't posted an official depth chart, so I figured this would be a great time to revisit the list.

Here's the updated projection:

QB) Matt Ryan, Chris Redman, D.J. Shockley

It's still too early to project John Parker Wilson as a keeper, but it's a possibility.  He's had a good camp.  So far he has shown more consistent accuracy than Shockley and a better arm than Redman.  Both Shockley and Redman are in the final years of their contracts, and Redman is carrying a $2.5 million base salary. 

RB) Michael Turner, Jerious Norwood, Thomas Brown
FB) Ovie Mughelli, Jason Snelling

Verron Haynes is also having a good camp and will make the competition interesting.  The Falcons carried only four backs on the roster for the entire 2008 season, since Jason Snelling did double-duty as the #2 fullback and #3 running back.  Verron Haynes also plays both roles.

I suspect that the team will keep at least five runners this year, and the roles that Norwood, Brown, Snelling and Haynes play on special teams might make a strong argument to keep all six. 

WR) Roddy White, Michael Jenkins, Brian Finneran
WR) Marty Booker, Robert Ferguson

Aaron Kelly had a good first week of camp and will still have chances to impress the coaches in preseason.  Likewise, Chandler Williams will have his chances - including returning punts and kickoffs. But the Falcons signed not one but two veteran free agents to replace Harry Douglas, so unless the team keeps six wideouts, they will both have a major uphill battle to crack the roster.  Ditto for Troy Bergeron and Eric Weems.  The other undrafted receivers (Darren Mougey, Bradon Godfrey, and Dicky Lyons) have already been released.

TE) Tony Gonzalez, Ben Hartsock, Justin Peelle

I'm not making any changes here yet, but I suspect that Keith Zinger might be in the hunt for one of the backup TE spots.  He has shown amazing improvement from last preseason to camp this year.  But I'll wait until the second preseason game before dropping either Hartsock or Peelle in favor of Zinger or Jason Raider.

LT) Sam Baker, Will Svitek
LG) Justin Blalock, Quinn Ojinnaka
 C) Todd McClure, Brett Romberg
RG) Harvey Dahl, (Brett Romberg)  
RT) Tyson Clabo, Garrett Reynolds

With the pre-minicamp list, I said it was way too early even to think about naming the backups.  There are still some battles to be won, and it's not certain the team will even keep ten linemen.  (Last season the Falcons started with nine but finished with ten.)

If they keep just nine, Ben Wilkerson is likely the odd man out.  He has progressed nicely as a backup center and guard, but Brett Romberg has more experience and has even won a starting job while playing under line coach Paul Boudreau.  Quinn Ojinnaka can play all five positions on the line and has experience at left tackle (and has performed well when needed).

Mike Butterworth is in the hunt for a backup guard spot as well, but he'd be a long shot - especially if there are only nine linemen.  There are also three undrafted linemen in camp, but they have had so few reps in 2practice that they are likely competing for one or two practice squad jobs.


ST) Jason Elam, Michael Koenen, Mike Schneck

Not much of a story here. The only other specialist in camp is rookie long snapper Robert Shiver.  But next season could be interesting, as the team elected to tender Koenen for one year with the franchise tag rather than resign him to a long term deal.

DE) Jamaal Anderson, Lawrence Sidbury
DT) Jonathan Babineaux, Vance Walker
DT) Peria Jerry, Trey Lewis
DE) John Abraham, Chauncey Davis, Kroy Biermann

I'm projecting nine defensive linemen, though the performances of the other DTs will make a strong argument for keeping ten.  (That's unusual, but the Falcons use such frequent rotations that it would make sense to use an extra at-large roster spot on the defensive line.  The team did have ten defensive linemen for a short time last season.)

At this point, the significant candidates for an extra DT spot are Jason Jefferson and Thomas Johnson.  You might remember Jefferson from last year, but he's had a much better preseason this year.  I'm not quite ready to buy into his improvement, so I'm waiting for the exhibition games to see how he does in full contact action before saving him a roster spot.

Johnson is one of the surprises of camp.  He was brought in under a futures contract in January.  He played in 13 games in 2005-2006, was out of football in 2007, went to camp with the Jets last season and is in camp with us this year.  That's not a particularly impressive resume, but the story is he's progressing very well with line coach Ray Hamilton.

LB) Mike Peterson, Coy Wire, Jamie Winborn
LB) Curtis Lofton, Spencer Adkins
LB) Stephen Nicholas, Robert James

The numbers game says that if there are 10 offensive linemen or 6 wide receivers, the extra roster spot will likely come from the linebacker corps.  That would put the squeeze on young prospects Spencer Adkins and Robert James, who are already in heated competition with Edmond Miles and Tony Gilbert for those backup linebacker jobs.

CB) Chris Houston, Chris Owens, Brent Grimes
CB) Chevis Jackson, William Middleton
 S) William Moore, Von Hutchins
 S) Erik Coleman, Thomas DeCoud

Last time around, I projected that Von Hutchins and David Irons would be the cornerbacks who didn't make it.  Irons wasn't cleared for full contact before the start of camp, so he was released with an injury settlement.  The wild card is Hutchins.

He was brought in to add experience to the CB group last year, since Chris Houston (11 games) was the only corner on the roster at the time that had ever started a single game in the NFL. But now the CB group is crowded, and Houston, Jackson and Grimes have more experience behind them. 

But Hutchins was also a safety with the Houston Texans before signing with Atlanta, and the Falcons could use some experience in the safety corps.  So this time around, I'm putting him in as a backup safety and knocking out Jamaal Fudge, Antoine Harris, and Eric Brock.

A key for all of the fringe players is that they'll be competing for at-large roster spots.  The extra wide receivers aren't just competing with the other WR prospects and the receivers ahead of them on the depth chart.  They're also competing with the borderline linebackers, defensive backs, etc, trying to convince the coaches that a sixth WR would be a better way to use a roster spot than a 10th offensive lineman, 7th linebacker, etc. 

And that will make the final roster cuts very, very interesting. 

Also note that the team still might not be finished acquiring players from outside the organization.  Domonique Foxworth, Jason Jefferson, and Jamaal Fudge all came aboard AFTER the roster cuts but before the first game.  It's likely that the Falcons will make a few moves again this season after seeing who gets squeezed out elsewhere.

Posted on: April 18, 2009 4:35 pm

Ten returning Falcons I want to see in minicamp

Of course, everyone who sits on the hillside to watch the team during minicamp will be there to see the newly drafted players, new free agent Mike Peterson, and of course Matt Ryan and Michael Turner.

But like last year, there will be a lot of good stories unfolding with a whole lot of other players on the roster.  The Falcons are one of the youngest teams in the league, and the 11-5 record last season is strong evidence that they're stepping up and breaking through.

Here are ten that I'm really looking forward to watching in minicamp:

1)  Thomas DeCoud.  He was a third round pick last year, but he wasn't ready to step into a starting role right away as he struggled to learn the Falcons defensive schemes and missed a few key plays in preseason as a result.  But he's had a full year of practice now, and this will be his second camp.  Right now, he's penciled in as the leading candidate to replace Lawyer Milloy.  That may change after the draft, after the next wave of free agents become available in June, or in a preseason trade.  But all the same, he's a fairly high draft prospect from last season who will be in the spotlight in minicamp. 

Jamaal Fudge and Antoine Harris are also noteworthy as his incumbent competition, but right now Decoud is the one to watch most closely.


2)  Trey Lewis.  He was a diamond in the rough in the 2007 draft, coming from Washburn (ever heard of it?) in the sixth round.  He won the starting NT job from Grady Jackson, which led to Petrino's controversial release of our beloved Jabba The Nose Tackle.  And then he became one of four players to suffer season-ending injuries in week ten, ultimately missing the entire 2008 season as well.

Other than through game film, our coaching staff hasn't had a chance to evaluate him yet.  If he makes the grade, he will be a huge part of our defense.  (Even if we draft a new starting nose tackle, Lewis will be part of the rotation - and possibly at both the nose tackle and under tackle positions.)


3)  D.J. Shockley.  At this time last season, Shockley was still rehabbing from the serious knee injury that erased his 2007 season.  But he was still able to work his way back and put up gutsy preseason performances to beat out Joey Harrington for the #3 QB position.

This season, he'll be focusing on football instead of physical rehab.  Take note:  he'll be competing to take the #2 spot away from Chris Redman, and he'll have a serious shot at doing it.


4)  Stephen Nicholas.  Nicholas was all set to replace Demorrio Williams as the starting weak side linebacker.  But then the Falcons drafted Curtis Lofton in the second round last year.  And when Lofton showed he was ready for part time duty as the starting middle linebacker, the coaching staff moved Keith Brooking to the weak side ahead of Nicholas. 

The interesting aspect of the competition for starting linebacker jobs is that Nicholas will indirectly compete with Coy Wire.  Mike Peterson will take one of the outside starting postions.  Which one he plays depends on Nicholas and Wire.

If Nicholas shows he's ready to step up, he'll take the WLB spot and Peterson will play at SLB. 


5)  Von Hutchins.  He was intended to be our experienced corner, bringing stability to that unit last season.  But he suffered a broken foot in a freak accident on the first day of training camp and was lost for the season.  The team tried Blue Adams but ultimately traded for Domonique Foxworth instead.

Foxworth has moved on to big bucks in free agency, but Hutchins will be back to reclaim the position that was to be his in 2008.

Many fans have expressed a lack of confidence, listing CB as their top desires for the draft.  But Hutchins will be the most experienced corner on our roster and figures to hold down one of the three main corner spots. 


6)  Quinn Ojinnaka.  Todd Weiner's retirement was a bit of a surprise, but it may not be a catastrophe.  While Weiner was one of the better pass blockers in the league, his ongoing rehabilitation from his 2007 surgery left him as the #3 tackle instead of a starter.  Replacing him simply means someone else will have to step up to the #3 OT spot.

Ojinnaka was being groomed by Jim Mora as the team's future right tackle.  He played well as the starting left tackle at the end of the 2007 season and as the #4 tackle throughout 2008.  He'll be competing with incoming free agent Will Svitek for that #3 tackle spot.

The twist is that Ojinnaka is versatile and can play any position along the line if needed.  If Svitek impresses the coaches in camp, Ojinnaka might end up as the primary backup at guard.


7)  Renardo Foster.  He's another major wild card that the coaches will evaluate for the first time this spring.  Smitty saw him first hand in one game in 2007, as Foster's NFL debut came against the Jaguars.  (Foster replaced struggling Wayne Gandy in the second half, and the team immediately had success running to the left side behind Foster.)

But he hasn't suited up in a year and a half, and his roster spot was essentially handed to him by his former college coach.  We've seen that he has potential, but we don't know if he'll be able to win a roster spot against the serious competition he'll face in camp this summer.

Something to keep in mind:  he should be eligible for the practice squad if he doesn't make the roster.


8)  Eric Brock.  If you like the "out of nowhere" guys (Tommy Jackson, Tony Taylor, Harvey Dahl, Brent Grimes, etc), Brock is someone to watch closely.  The Auburn defensive back wasn't drafted at all in 2008.  He wasn't even signed by any team as an undrafted free agent.

Instead, the Falcons invited him to minicamp last May as one of eight participants who were just hoping to win an invitation to training camp.  Brock passed the audition and was signed for camp - with no one expecting him to make it to September.

But he played well enough to win a practice squad job, and he continued to impress the coaches throughout the season.  When Antoine Harris was banged up at the end of the year, Brock was promoted to the main roster.

He already figures to be #5 on the depth chart at safety (behind Erik Coleman, Decoud, Fudge, and Harris) even before the draft.  But he's already proven that we should never count him out.  He'll have a chance at taking a backup job away from one of the others.


9)  Robert James.  He was nicknamed "The Beast" in college and was a monster of a tackler.  The Falcons drafted him in the early fifth round last year.  Unfortunately, he suffered a major concussion, and the doctors would not clear him to participate in preseason.  The team instantly put him on the shelf for the year.

The question now is whether he'll be the same after the concussion as the tackling machine he was in college.  If so, he's a fine young prospect to develop for the future, and the team will be fairly well set in the linebacking corps.


10)  David Irons.   He's another one of the Petrino draft choices, which might make him an endangered species.  From that draft class, fellow sixth rounders Doug Datish and Daren Stone are already gone, as are fourth rounder Martrez Milner and now third rounder Laurent Robinson, plus undrafted prospects Tony Taylor and Kurt Quarterman

Irons has been a special teams demon for Atlanta, but he has yet to appear in real game action in the secondary.  The return of Von Hutchins potentially drops him to #5 on the CB depth chart.  This could be a make or break training camp for him.

Posted on: November 30, 2008 11:35 am

looking ahead to 2009

As the 2008 regular season winds down, more and more posts on the Falcons message board are looking ahead to free agency and the draft, sizing up the team's likely targets and areas of need.

One key thing to remember:  this is one of the youngest teams in the NFL this decade, not just this season.  The Falcons have 31 players - including 11 starters - that are age 26 or younger.  This is important for two reasons. First, many of these young guys are still developing and will improve naturally with experience.  A few areas that might be perceived as weak points for the team may not be liabilities next season.  Those positions wouldn't necessarily be targets for the draft, because the newly drafted players would have to go through the same growing pains as our current players did last year and this year.

Second, every player coming in next season will have to replace someone currently on the roster. We don't have a whole lot of guys who are likely to retire, we really don't have that many free agents in key roles, and Dimitroff is working to sign our potential free agents early to avoid having them hit the open market. The team will have quite a few currently injured guys returning, plus we have more solid prospects on our practice squad than most teams. I'm expecting at least 10 players from those lists to be with the Falcons in minicamp next season and competing for roster spots.

So if you'd like to play GM and start designing your 2009 roster, keep those players in mind.

Here's a rundown by unit:

Quarterback:  Ryan, Redman, Shockley.  No issues there at all, and all three are under contract for 2009.  Feels nice, doesn't it?  One catch - both Redman and Shockley are free agents after next season. Expect the team to pick up a fourth guy for camp next year to compete with them and perhaps a developmental project for the practice squad.

Running back / fullback:  Turner, Mughelli, Norwood, Snelling, Brown, Barclay.  The team is likely to carry five players in this unit.  Snelling was a hybrid RB/FB who dropped some weight this season to focus on the RB role - but ended up with the FB#2 duty as well as the RB#3 role.  With Brown returning, he may bulk back up to focus on fullback.

Receiver / tight end:  White, Jenkins, Hartsock, Robinson, Douglas, Peelle, Finneran, Zinger, Rader, Weems, Chandler Williams, Noriaki Kinoshita.  The WR side of this unit is loaded with Jenkins already re-signed.  The only question is whether the team will keep five or six on the roster next season. 

Tight end will be a significant issue.  The team doesn't have a true receiving tight end, and Mularkey will likely want an upgrade for a blocker.  Note that Peelle is a free agent at the end of the season.  Zinger, like all practice squad players, is a free agent even now.  Rader is a stop-gap who is in his third stint with the team this season.  Best guess:  the team will aim for three TEs on the roster next season.  Re-signing Peelle is likely but won't be considered a top priority.  Likely scenario = Hartsock + drafted TE + Peelle.

Offensive line:  Baker, Blalock, McClure, Dahl, Clabo, Ojinnaka, Wilkerson, Stepanovich, Weiner, Batiste, Foster, McCoy. Wilkerson (center/guard) is a free agent, while Dahl and Clabo are restricted free agents. Gandy will also be available if needed but isn't likely to return.

This unit has a lot of what-ifs.  Let's simplify it with a kind of worst-case scenario. Suppose that Clabo, Dahl, and Wilkerson all sign elsewhere. In that case, the Falcons still have Baker, Blalock, and McClure starting on the left side and at center, with Stepanovich holding down the backup center role.

Weiner has played fairly well in spite of being far from 100% back from his rehab. He'll be better next season after another winter of rest and rehab.  Ojinnaka can play either guard spot or either tackle spot and is ready to step up as a starter. Batiste, Foster, and McCoy would all challenge for the first-unit jobs.

That's nine solid prospects already in house.  The team would be in pretty good shape even without anyone else.  If we could hang on to at least one of Clabo or Dahl, it would be a sweet bonus. The coaching staff may elect to bring in someone new via free agency or the draft to add competition, but it certainly shouldn't be considered a weakness or a top priority. 

Defensive end:  Abraham, Anderson, Davis, Biermann, Fraser, Evans.  Abraham, Anderson, and Biermann appear to be locks.  Chauncey Davis is a free agent.  He'll get attention from other teams, and keeping him may be difficult if he isn't signed before he hits the open market on March 1. Evans is a practice squad prospect hoping to break through and win a regular roster spot as a backup. 

A late rounder here for competition is a strong possibility, but the spot might also be handled on the cheap in free agency. In particular, if Brandon Miller becomes available again at the end of the season, there's a strong chance Atlanta will bring him back.

Defensive tackle:  Babineaux, Moorehead, Lewis, Jefferson, Parker, Grady Jackson.  The nose tackle will be a high priority position for this offseason.  The team is well stocked at UT with Babineaux and Moorehead.  But with Grady likely to retire (and not capable of playing every down even if he returns), the team needs answers in the form of run-stuffing big men.  Lewis may become the starter, but that still leaves an opening as his backup. 

The only in-house candidate is practice squad signing J'Vonne Parker.  It's possible that they may be the guys for the job, but Vital and Dimitroff are almost certain to bring in some new blood.  I've mentioned it before, but it's worth repeating. For Smitty's defensive scheme to work here, we have to have the big men in place.  We don't necessarily have to have a 350-pound Jabba The Lineman, but a pair of guys in the 320 ballpark would help the entire defense.

At the moment, when Grady is off the field we have nobody on the line that even tops 300.  In run situations, the opposing offense can match up one on one on our linemen, leaving one offensive lineman plus a tight end and a lead blocker free to block the linebackers.  That's a big part of why our safeties lead the team in tackles.  It puts extra pressure on the safeties to make plays against the run, which leaves them vulnerable to play fakes.  That in turn leaves the corners vulnerable.  We've had a lot of big play passes against us where the young corners appeared to have been burned but were actually playing their double coverage assignments - expecting help from safeties who weren't there.  It may seem odd, but a key to getting improved play from Brooking, Boley, Coleman, Grimes, Houston, and Chevis Jackson is to get the nose tackle resolved so that everybody else can focus on their own jobs rather than having to cover for our lack of size in the middle of the front line.

Linebacker:  Boley, Lofton, Brooking, Nicholas, Wire, Gilbert, James. The only four bodies locked in for 2009 are Brooking, Lofton, Nicholas, and James. The team has not kept a linebacker on the practice squad at all this season.  James returns from IR next season, but he's a prospect that hasn't played a single snap.  He'll be the equivalent of a newly drafted player.    

Suffice to say this unit will need extra depth even if Boley re-signs. Wire has played well and can also play safety in an emergency.  Look for the team to try to retain him.

Secondary:  Houston, Foxworth, Hutchins, Jackson, Grimes, Irons, Coleman, Milloy, Decoud, Harris, Fudge, Brock, Sharpe.  This will be an interesting unit to watch.  It is overloaded with bodies already, but there are still depth issues. Milloy and Foxworth are free agents while Fudge is a restricted free agent. Hutchins will return from IR, making the CB side very crowded.  The wild card is Foxworth.  He was acquired mainly as an insurance policy but has quickly developed into our best defender.  If the team can re-sign him, the primary CB spots will be held by Houston, Foxworth, and Hutchins at the start of minicamp, with Jackson, Grimes and Irons competing to take those jobs away and also to hang on to what will probably be two roster spots.  Someone will have to go even if the team doesn't pick up anyone new in free agency.

Safety will be the greater concern.  The team drafted Decoud to groom as the heir apparent to Milloy, and they already released Daren Stone and Deke Cooper to save a roster spot for the third rounder.  The whisper in the wind is that he probably won't be ready to step in as a starter next season. That makes it more likely the team will give Milloy an extension or bring in another safety, probably via free agency rather than the draft. And just like at cornerback, the wild card is Foxworth. The coaches may try to solve several problems at once by moving him to safety. 

Specialists:  Elam, Koenen, Schneck.  Koenen will be a free agent.  He is one of the more precise and reliable punters out there, and since he also kicks off, the team is very likely to re-sign him rather than try to replace him.


The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com