The basic Falcons 53-man roster typically consists of 3 QB, 5 RB/FB, 3 TE, 5 WR, 9 OL, 5 DE, 4 DT, 6 LB, 5 CB, 4 S, 1 P, 1 K, 1 LS, and one at-large spot.
The at-large spot is completely up for grabs and likely to change during the season. The team briefly had six defensive ends in 2008 and finished the season with ten offensive linemen. Last season began with six cornerbacks but ended with an extra running back.
The team will naturally make tweaks as needed, such as in 2008 when they carried only 4 runners (with the fifth on the practice squad) in order to start the year with extra depth elsewhere. But for the most part, that's what we can expect for the 2010 team.
I made a list of what I call the late season 2009 roster. With injuries and replacements, it's difficult to nail down one set of 53 players as "the" roster. But these were the players who were aboard for most of November and December.
Eight players from that list are now gone. Eight incoming or returning players are penciled in as locks to make the roster: Harry Douglas (assuming he's medically cleared), Peria Jerry, William Moore, Dunta Robinson, Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley.
The catch is that while some are easy one-for-one swaps (Douglas replaces Marty Booker, Sean Weatherspoon replaces Tony Gilbert), others are not (Corey Peters and Mike Johnson replace ????). There are also many other returning or incoming players that will offer strong competition for roster spots. And Smitty has already made the first "nobody is safe" reference of the year.
So the key question is which players from last season are on the hot seat in camp this summer?
I've pegged as many as twenty that are at risk. I think eight of them are probably safe, but the other twelve are in real danger of losing their roster spots. Starting with the offense, they are:
1) Eric Weems. He made the roster last season for his potential as a return man, not strictly as a wide receiver. He'll have a good shot at playing a few years in the NFL off of his special teams skills, but the fifth round of the draft may have sealed his fate in Atlanta. The Falcons drafted potential return man Dominique Franks and potential WR Kerry Meier with their two fifth round picks.
Weems will also have to compete with returning practice squad candidates Troy Bergeron and Andy Strickland plus undrafted free agent Ryan Wolfe and two others just to have a shot at the at-large spot as a sixth WR. And that DUI arrest in November certainly doesn't help his cause.
2) Brian Finneran. While Weems figures to be the first WR replaced, if both Meier and Wolfe stick (or if Bergeron, Strickland, Brandyn Harvey or converted quarterback Tim Buckley amaze the coaches), Finn may have a tough time returning once more.
His latest knee injury isn't anywhere near as bad as the two that sidelined him in consecutive seasons, but he's now 34. He wasn't all that fast to begin with, so he can't afford to lose a step due to age or injury.
3) Will Svitek. He was an interesting addition to last year's roster and played competently as a backup. But he's not a starting caliber player, and that's not likely to change in camp this year.
4) Quinn Ojinnaka. He can play any position on the offensive line. So can third round pick Mike Johnson. And the coaching staff chose Svitek to fill in for Sam Baker last season at left tackle. If Svitek is still the choice at the end of preseason, Ojinnaka may be the one bumped out to make room for Johnson.
Ojinnaka is also the only backup lineman who was not brought into the organization under Smitty and Dimitroff. I'm not saying Smitty and his staff will play favorites, but it's a factor. Ojinnaka is a holdover from the Jim Mora days and was drafted because he fit the Alex Gibbs blocking scheme. Everyone else was hand picked by Smitty and Dimitroff because they fit the current Falcons scheme.
5) Brett Romberg. Yep, three of the four backup linemen are at risk. Romberg played for Boudreau in St. Louis, and the Rams thought enough of him to start him. He's a solid - and experienced - backup. He's definitely a handy guy to have around.
But Mike Johnson probably takes over the #3 guard role this year, and the arrival of Joe Hawley puts his backup center role at risk. To date, Romberg hasn't been a real candidate to play tackle, plus the team chose Ojinnaka ahead of Romberg to fill in for Harvey Dahl at guard.
If the team once again keeps only nine total linemen, these three are all at serious risk. Johnson and Hawley will make the roster, so two guys will have to go to make room for them. Prospects Jose Valdez and Rob Bruggeman are knocking on the door as well.
6) Matt Bryant. The Falcons had a steady-Freddy but aging kicker in Jason Elam to start the 2009 season. They finished with another in Matt Bryant.
He's about to turn 35 later this month. He was 1 for 4 from 40+ yards last season after going 5 of 11 and 6 of 10 from 40+ the previous two seasons with the Buccaneers. He's rock steady from inside 40, but that means the Falcons would have to get inside the 23-yard line to feel confident in making a field goal. That's not good.
The team added Steven Hauschka for insurance in the final week of the season, as Bryant came away from the Bills game a bit gimpy. Hauschka has a strong leg but missed a pair of shorter field goal attempts that cost him his spot with the Ravens. If he can work out the mechanics, he's a strong contender.
And then there's the rookie, Garrett Lindholm. He was mainly on the national radar for this:
In the playoffs, no time left, game on the line...
He turned it on his senior year, but his sophomore and junior year stats certainly won't blow you away. And he definitely needs work on his mechanics if he is to maintain consistency, as you'll see in one of the clips below. I don't know if he's the answer. I think I might have preferred signing Damon Duval when we had the chance.
Some highlights (no sound)
Workout results... he made the 49-yarder but missed several shorter ones...
At the very least, Lindholm will add competition. But my guess is that if Hauschka turns it on, he'll be the man.
7) Joe Zelenka. Joe who? I'm sure many of you don't really care who takes the long snapper job. But keep in mind that after Mike Schneck went on IR last year, replacement Bryan Pittman, holder Michael Koenen and kicker Jason Elam just couldn't get in sync, costing the Falcons at least one game and chances at winning two more.
Zelenka did well enough as the second replacement, but he hardly has a lock on the position the way Schneck might have had he not decided to retire. The competition comes from undrafted rookie Justin Drescher, who has plenty of college experience after serving as Colorado's long snapper in all four years.
8) Coy Wire. Frankly, I found it hard to believe he was included in the "On The Fringe" TV series last year. There was no doubt in my mind that he'd make the roster. He still has a strong chance this year, but it will be a little more challenging.
The catch is that if Sean Weatherspoon takes over as the starting Will backer, Mike Peterson would then drop down to the #4 overall LB. So unless the team drops Peterson off the roster completely, Wire would then drop to #5, pretty much limiting him to special teams duty.
So far, no problem there - he's our special teams captain. And there isn't a need to drop anyone to make room for 'Spoon, as Tony Gilbert was not re-signed.
But most teams prefer to have younger guys with upside potential filling those spots on the back end of the roster. He'd be competing not only with the younger linebacker prospects, but also with the new safeties (Matt Giordano and Shann Schillinger) as special teams players.
I was hesitant to include him on this list, as he was solid as a replacement for Michael Boley in 2008 and has been outstanding on special teams. He's a fine player. The question is whether the team would continue to keep a guy with zero remaining upside as the #5 LB.
9) Spencer Adkins. If Wire does stay aboard as the #5 LB, then Adkins will have to step up big in his second year or face competition for the #6 spot. He was on the inactive list for most of the season, but the team worked him in on special teams for a few games when the WRs and safeties were so banged up.
The competition will come from 2008 fifth rounder Robert James and from this year's undrafted prospects, Bear Woods and Weston Johnson.
While it seems like a reach for one of the undrafted prospects to unseat a drafted player from the roster, keep in mind that it was considered a big stretch when the Falcons drafted Adkins in the sixth round in 2009 - mainly because of his blazing fast 40 time. He was otherwise figured to be an undrafted free agent himself.
So once you put their projections on an even footing, there's a lot to be said for the rest of the pack. Adkins was only a part time player for Miami. Meanwhile, Weston Johnson was named team captain at Wyoming, while Bear Woods was the leading tackler at Troy. The competition will be quite real.
10) Trey Lewis. Smitty said he was excited to have Lewis back last season, and that Lewis gave the team potential to work in some 3-4 as a package defense. But it turned out that Lewis was far from full speed in his first season back from two reconstructive knee surgeries. He spent most of the year as the #4 (inactive) DT, taking the 3-4 package off the table.
On the plus side, he showed as a rookie that when healthy, he can play either DT spot. He's not strictly a nose tackle. And his size adds an element that no other DT on the roster can bring. If his knee will allow him to get back to form, he has a good chance of winning the #4 DT job again this year, serving as the #3 while Babs is out.
But he'll have to turn it up this summer or he'll be off the roster when Babs returns, if not sooner.
11) Thomas Johnson. I can't say enough good things about the job he did last season. He truly was our Out Of Nowhere player for the 2009 season.
The guy was an undrafted free agent who had already been released by three different teams and hadn't played a game since 2006. He signed with the Falcons as a futures contract. He wasn't expected to make the roster at all but ended up as our starting nose tackle.
Now move ahead a year... Peria Jerry is expected to return, and the team has added Corey Peters. Johnson is expendable, and he probably has the least potential upside of the backup candidates. It's a brutal fact of life in the NFL.
12) Vance Walker. It shouldn't be a surprise that all three backup DTs are at major risk. Unless one wins the at-large spot, the Falcons will have two DTs too many after Babs returns from suspension. And that's not even counting Joe Klecko or Trey Bryant as serious candidates or DEs sliding in to play the middle.
The seventh rounder started the season on the practice squad and is still practice squad eligible. If all else is equal between the three backup DTs, the coaching staff may try to keep them all for the start of the season by stashing Walker back on the practice squad.
Noteworthy players left off the list:
Brian Williams: the only reason he's not on the list above is that he wasn't on the late 2009 roster in the first place, so he didn't have a roster spot to lose.
Otherwise, he might be the most at risk player of all. He's still far from 100% and won't be back until at least the start of training camp. If his recovery takes longer, he may end up starting the year on the PUP list or get released on an injury settlement as Von Hutchins was last year.
If he's healthy, his main value (and best chance at making the roster) is that he can play safety as well as CB. He would likely be the top contender for the #4 safety role.
Jamaal Anderson, Chauncey Davis: if the Falcons had brought in a serious DE candidate, it would be obvious that one of these two would have to go. But the team appears to be standing pat, bringing in only a pair of undrafted candidates to replace Maurice Lucas on the practice squad.
I won't say they're definitely safe, but at least for now there is room to fit all five DEs on the roster. Unlike the DTs, they aren't in a spot where somebody HAS to go... yet...
Chris Owens, Brent Grimes: the rookie Owens worked his way into the starting rotation, plus he's a Dimitroff prospect. He isn't going anywhere. Many fans don't care for Grimes, but he entered the season with just eight total games of experience. He was essentially a rookie too. He led the team with six interceptions. The last time any Falcons player had more was 1998 (Ray Buchanan, with seven).
If Williams isn't healthy or makes the roster as a safety, or if Franks gets the at-large spot as a return specialist, everyone in the room could make the roster. Only one CB absolutely had to go, and Tye Hill's release settled the question of who it would be.
Justin Peelle, Keith Zinger: they certainly aren't safe, but the three prospects brought in this season aren't as much of a threat as the incoming DTs or offensive linemen. While Colin Peek and Michael Palmer are both contenders, the Falcons may choose to start them on the practice squad as they did with Zinger in 2008.