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Analysis: What you need to know about the Falcons initial 53-man roster decisions

Pay attention to the use of the word "initial" here. 

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Feleipe Franks #15, quarterback Matt Ryan #2, and quarterback Josh Rosen #16 run at the end of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Friday August 27, 2021. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta Falcons)
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Feleipe Franks #15, quarterback Matt Ryan #2, and quarterback Josh Rosen #16 run at the end of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Friday August 27, 2021. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta Falcons)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Let's get one thing straight about this, right off the bat: Don't get too comfortable with this 53-man roster. This isn't your official 2021 roster for the Atlanta Falcons. Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith don't work like that.

Take Smith's comment after Sunday's loss for what it is: Foreshadowing.

"We're always looking at the roster, and you never know who's going to come available," Smith said. "There are going to be a million calls around the league (Monday) between general managers."

Expect fluctuation from this new regime. Sure, the starters are pretty obvious. The Falcons were never going to cut, say, Jake Matthews. But the depth pieces of this roster will be in flux. Players will likely come and go, moving up and down, in and out as Fontenot and Smith see fit. It's how they operate, which will be a very different operation than the previous staff and front office.

So, no. You can't get too comfortable. There's still a lot of movement that can - and probably will - happen. But until then, let's take a look at some of the major notes from cut day.

Carrying three quarterbacks

Arthur Smith said on the last day of training camp that carrying three quarterbacks was a possibility. It makes sense considering the limited evaluation time this staff had for Josh Rosen.

On Rosen's first practice day last Wednesday, Smith said then the staff wanted to get a fair evaluation of him. He has been in Atlanta less than a week and was only working with a watered-down version of the offense against the Browns on Sunday night. So, this seems like a fair development to keep him on the roster to truly evaluate where he stands in the battle for backup quarterback.

Where Feleipe Franks is concerned, Smith said after the first preseason game that he showed his ability to extend plays. There's rawness to Franks that consistent guidance could help lead him to more consistent play. It seems the staff has seen that in him throughout training camp. He does look more comfortable in what we've seen so far in Smith's scheme, but there is still a lot of growth to be done.

Smith is all about competition, and keeping both Franks and Rosen on the 53-man provides that. But don't forget, the door is still open to shift this room even further as quarterbacks across the league are cut. The room may consist of Matt Ryan, Rosen and Franks now but that isn't guaranteed to be the group in even a week's time.

The release of Willie Beavers

Injuries have played a primary role in the narrative of the right tackle position. Matt Gono has missed all of training camp, and Kaleb McGary missed the first week. The absence of these two opened the door for a guy like Beavers.

Before McGary returned from injury, it was Jalen Mayfield and Beavers vying for those first team reps at right tackle. But since McGary's return, he's won the job day in and day out.

The ripple effect moved Mayfield back to guard, where he worked primarily in the spring, and push Beavers down the depth chart. However, it wasn't until Jason Spriggs emerged on the offensive line that Beavers' spot on the roster came into question. The question being just how many roster spots would be available for linemen, eight or nine? If eight, the final spot would come down to Spriggs or Beavers. Now official, the Falcons decided to lean on Spriggs' experience.

Spriggs has appeared in 45 career games with nine starts over five seasons. His background is a bit more consistent than that of Beavers, who after being drafted by Minnesota in 2016 spent time with Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco. The Falcons rewarded Spriggs' contrasting experience with a roster spot.

The Falcons' 2021 roster is constantly evolving and we've amassed all the players in one gallery that will be updated throughout the year.

The unknown future of an injured Kendall Sheffield

The defensive back spent a lot of time working as a corner with the second team defense early in training camp. But injury has kept him off the field for the last few weeks. Sheffield hasn't played in any preseason games and there is still no public timeline for his return.

This called into question just how Sheffield could fit on the 53-man roster, with little to no practice time. Keeping Sheffield likely booted a guy like Chris Williamson off the initial roster. However, the Falcons do have other options for Sheffield.

Placing Sheffield on IR would make the most sense if he's not 100 percent. The rule is that if placed on IR, Sheffield would be out for three games, but wouldn't count towards the 53-man roster beyond the initial list. This could keep the door open for a player like Williamson or even another defensive back on the open market.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts #8 smiles as he talks to tight end Hayden Hurst #81 during AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Friday August 27, 2021. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta Falcons)

The possibility remains to keep four tight ends

There's a distinction that must be made with this group. Parker Hesse has not been waived. He is on the reserve/COVID-19. This could mean nothing, or it could mean something. (I know, so vague, right?).

There's a chance we could see Hesse again after being reactivated from the reserve/COVID-19 list, and the Falcons end up carrying four tight ends. But the possibility of him being waived after coming off the list is just as probable. It's just something to keep an eye on in the coming days.

Cam Nizialek vs. Dom Maggio

After waiving Sterling Hofrichter earlier in camp, the Falcons brought in Nizialek to compete with Maggio at punter. Both had a quality number of reps over the course of the last two weeks, but the Falcons went with Nizialek in their initial 53-man picks.

This doesn't completely rule out seeing Maggio again, though. The Falcons waived/injured Maggio. It wouldn't be out of the question that he could return, and that the punting competition continues to be a storyline down the road. He could come back just as easily as he was released.

All rookies remain

There was never a thought that majority of these rookies wouldn't be on the 53-man roster. Of course, they would be. But outside the obvious majority, there was a question as to whether or not Darren Hall and Frank Darby would earn as the minority of the class.

Hall and Darby were pretty quiet throughout camp, never really moving up or around in the way other rookies like Richie Grant, Avery Williams and Jalen Mayfield did. They were the only players of the class that consistently ran with the third team. So, they were considered bubble players going into cut day, but both made it through with roster spots in hand, keeping the Falcons at 9-for-9 for rookies making the roster.

The lone UDFA

Dorian Etheridge earned the spot he got in the inside linebackers room alongside Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun and Mykal Walker. There was always going to be one spot open and one of the most interesting battles for that spot came down to two UDFAs: Etheridge and Errol Thompson. Both impressed Smith as he said on a couple occasions that this was a position group he was pleased with.

But Etheridge won the spot after a stellar performance in the first preseason game vs. Tennessee. He showed consistency in the weeks that followed. It's no real surprise that Etheridge made the team. But keep an eye out for the futures of other UDFAs like Thompson and running back Caleb Huntley. They are definitely practice squad candidates after a solid showing in training camp this year.

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