One of the toughest decisions the Falcons will have to make come the 53-man cut down date at the end of August is how many wide receivers they will carry, and who they will be. We're still a couple weeks out from that decision - which comes on Aug. 30 - but the truth of the matter is that what these receivers are doing right now is vitally important for when that decision is made.
In terms of competition - you know, that word that Arthur Smith likes to use? - there are very few position groups that are competing to the degree these receivers are for a roster spot this year. There are three locks in my mind: Drake London, Olamide Zaccheaus and Bryan Edwards. That means you're talking about two - maybe three - spots up for grabs for everyone else. And when it comes to who those spots will go to? It's really anyone's game at this point.
One could argue KhaDarel Hodge and Damiere Byrd had the best first two weeks of camp. They continue to run with the first team. But Geronimo Allison and Auden Tate bring a size that can't be overlooked. Then, there's Frank Darby. The final draft pick of the Falcons 2021 class has slowly worked his way up the rotation. He was running with the first-team during Tuesday's practice, and had a few noticeable catches when targeted. And what of Cameron Batson? A guy who could provide a special teams usage? Or Stanley Berryhill or Jared Bernhardt, who have both had impressive flashes throughout camp and the first preseason game.
If there are - say - two spots up for grabs, who do you give those spots to? What's the combination you stick with for Week 1? And how quickly does that combination change? If at all?
Well, all of those questions are in the process of being evaluated right now.
So, what are the Falcons looking for at this point in the preseason?
"We're trying to build chemistry. We're trying to build rhythm," offensive coordinator Dave Ragone said. "It obviously helps from the quarterback perspective to build that timing and trust, too."
And the receivers? How does this coaching staff weigh something like sheer size versus versatility versus speed? This is a diverse group that will have to be cut down eventually. To be honest, Ragone said, you don't.
"I think what we're trying to set up - for the most part - is the ability to compete, regardless of your body type," Ragone said. "There's a certain way that we'd like to play football, and these guys are going in (and competing). First and foremost you have to know your assignment, and you have to play with a certain intent."
We already know the Falcons want to play a physical brand of football, and that absolutely extends to the receivers. They wouldn't have taken London with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft if they didn't want physical receivers.
But it's not just London the Falcons want to emerge as a yards-after-catch guy. They're looking for that from all of their receivers. The Falcons want to see strength at the position.
The best way to see strength emerge? Push harder.
"For the most part, what you want to see is you want to see guys go out there and push, not just pushing themselves but each other," Ragone said. "That group right now? They're pushing each other. It's great to see because it's bringing out their personalities but it's also bringing out the competitiveness. It's a great battle in there right now."
May the strongest men win.
Notes, observations from practice
Isaiah Oliver cross training: For the last two practices, Oliver has played a majority of his reps at safety instead of nickel. Talking to ESPN reporter Michael Rothstein after open practice on Monday, Oliver said it's something Dean Pees likes his nickels to do. Arthur Smith spoke more about this after Tuesday's practice saying, "There are a couple guys we're trying to cross train. Depending on who's up on game day, you get guys who can play multiple spots, that helps when you only have 48 guys up. If you want to run multiple personnel packages, which we do, you have to be able cross train."
Bryan Edwards makes his return: For the first time in over a week, Edwards was back working at 100 percent on Tuesday. After landing awkwardly on his shoulder during a weekend practice two weekends ago, Edwards has been wearing a yellow, non-contact jersey since. He did not travel with the team to Detroit last week. Edwards was excused from practice on Monday as his fiancée gave birth. But he was back at practice on Tuesday at 100 percent. As someone who will mean a lot to this offense, it was good to get Edwards back with no restraints. He'll likely make his Falcons (preseason) debut against the Jets next Monday.
Falcons ease Jaylinn Hawkins back in: Like Edwards, Hawkins did not make the trip to Detroit. Since then, the Falcons have been slowly working him back in. However, he's still not fully back to where he was alongside Richie Grant with the starting safeties. Dean Marlowe has played in that spot for the last week, and he continued to do so on Tuesday. It's not something to be overly worried about as the Falcons are being cautious with Hawkins while also getting more first-team evaluations of Marlowe.
Quinton Bell pushing for a roster spot: I'm not going to lie, I didn't have Bell on my 53-man roster projection, but Scott did. The only reason I didn't was because I was wanting to carry more defensive backs and offensive lineman, but I can admit when I'm wrong, and I'm starting to think I may have been wrong by counting Bell out so quickly. He's had a good camp, and he continues to get significant rotational reps at outside linebacker. On Tuesday, Bell spent a lot of time alongside Mykal Walker and Rashaan Evans in 7-on-7, even making a leaping play on a ball, batting down the pass. He's someone to continue to watch this preseason.
More receiver news: Drake London was not practicing again on Tuesday. He left Friday's preseason game with a knee injury. Smith said on Sunday that it's not an injury the Falcons believe is long term, but they are likely to hold London back throughout this week of the preseason. Meanwhile, Frank Darby has slowly emerged through the depth ranks of wide receiver, even taking a few first-team reps on Tuesday (as mentioned in the body of the story above).
The best play of practice came from a receiver. To end practice, Stanley Berryhill made a sideline catch with Dee Alford in coverage when Desmond Ridder connected with him deep. It was a perfectly placed ball by Ridder, and a contested catch by Berryhill that showed his spacial awareness as he was able to spy the sideline and get two feet down before being pushed out of bounds.