FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — In exactly one week, the Atlanta Falcons have to cut their 90-man roster down to 53 men. That means saying goodbye to 37 players who have potentially been around the team for the entirety of the month-long training camp. Or saying goodbye at least temporarily, as those players could return to the practice squad or even the main crew itself down the line.
The official deadline is next Tuesday by 4 p.m.
"The closer you get to the end, it's kind of like you start thinking, 'All right, what's going to happen?'" wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside said. "But you definitely can't think about that. You have to take it day by day."
The next day of work for the Falcons is Thursday's third and final preseason game (7:30 p.m., FOX 5) against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. So far, the Falcons have defeated the Miami Dolphins, 19-3, and tied the Cincinnati Bengals, 13-all, in the preseason.
Atlanta head coach Arthur Smith played a mixture of starters, backups and reserves through the first two exhibition games, with the starters unsurprisingly getting the least amount of reps. He did not specify who will get the majority of nods Thursday, but it wouldn't be a shock if the back half of the depth chart — which was updated and released Monday — earns the most field time since that's where most of the evaluation remains; that's really where it continues.
"There's been opportunities," Smith said. "There have been some guys competing for jobs that got injured. That's unfortunate. But the new guys came in here and there are guys that have made a really good impression. There will be a lot of opportunity again Thursday night. We have a couple practices to go after that, too, before we have to make any final decisions."
The Falcons do have open practices scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
Thursday is essentially the last live shot for anyone on the bubble to convince Falcons decision-makers to keep them around. Everyone is aware of that. But each approach is different.
"Offensively, I feel like I've shown them that I can play everything," wide receiver Josh Ali said. "Special teams, I'm still working on it. I haven't gotten as many reps as I wanted to, like in the games and stuff like that. But hopefully this week, I'll play (more), and I can show them what I can do."
Cornerback Darren Hall said: "I don't make decisions. I play football. Going out there and playing football at the highest level, that's all I can do."
It's also important to remember, a player can land on a different 53-man roster. This preseason wasn't just an audition for the Falcons. There are 31 other teams in the NFL available to snag and sign. And best believe, they've been paying attention.
Nothing is cemented in stone. Even after Tuesday. Smith called the 53-man roster a "moving target." Players know that, too.
"Whatever happens is supposed to happen, though," Arcega-Whiteside said. "You just got to keep putting your best foot forward, and then everything else will handled itself." --TW
Notes, observations from practice:
Roll call: Practice was moved inside Tuesday because of the heat bubble that is currently plopped over the southern states of the U.S. It was also a shells-only practice, so it was more of a glorified walk-through than anything. Still, there were some notable absences. OL Chris Lindstrom and C Drew Dalman were not present during Tuesday's practice. Smith said they are working through some minor tweaks. In their place was Ryan Neuzil at center and Kyle Hinton at right guard.
ILB Nate Landman was also not in attendance Tuesday. He was shaken up at the end of Monday's padded practice, but Smith said he does not foresee Landman's injury being long-term. However, with 53-man roster cuts coming in a week, it does bring up the question if the injury is serious enough to impact roster construction decisions. Time will tell.
Rotating the rotations: As Scott Bair pointed out in his practice notes Monday, the Falcons spent a lot of time playing around with various packages and rotations on offense and defense. Tuesday was no different. Here are some of the looks that caught my eye:
Inside linebacker: With Landman out, this increases playing time for someone like Tae Davis. The Falcons gave Davis a few reps alongside Troy Andersen with the first-team defense during the 7-on-7 passing period. When the units came together for full-team periods, the Falcons deployed a three-linebacker set on a couple of occasions with Kaden Elliss at the line of scrimmage, Davis matched up with a tight end and Andersen roaming.
Cornerback: From my vantage point, it seems Breon Borders is someone who continues to move up the depth chart. On Tuesday, he got in on the first-team action, playing opposite A.J. Terrell in 7-on-7s. When the Falcons went to full 11-on-11 work, Tre Flowers went back in to the would-be starting spot he has held onto since Jeff Okudah's injury, but it could be that Borders' opportunities and responsibilities are growing.
Skill players: In the final period of Tuesday's practice, the Falcons did a lot of offensive shifting with their receivers, tight ends and wide receiver sets. Here's a look at the group that worked with the first-team offensive line and QB Desmond Ridder: WR Drake London, WR Mack Hollins, RB Bijan Robinson, TE John FitzPatrick and TE Parker Hesse. As noted in the very first section above, Neuzil and Hinton were also considered the first-team offensive line Tuesday with Dalman and Lindstrom's absences. With the second-team offensive line and QB Taylor Heinicke lined up a rotation of: TE Kyle Pitts, TE MyCole Pruitt, TE Jonnu Smith, RB Tyler Allgeier, WR Zay Malone, WR Keilahn Harris and WR Slade Bolden. These groupings did nothing but continue to confirm the Falcons have some tough decisions ahead in regards to how many (and which) skill players they keep on the initial roster.
Outside linebacker/Edge rushers: This is less a consistent rotation I took note of and more a pairing that I find symbolism in. At times Tuesday (and even well before Tuesday), you'd see Arnold Ebiketie and Zach Harrison working on opposite sides of the defensive line from each other. It may not mean much in a glorified walk-through on one of the final days of training camp, but I think it's a pairing that speaks to the long-term health and hope of the position. When it comes to this position in Week 1 of the regular season, everyone will want to talk about players like Calais Campbell, Bud Dupree and Lorenzo Carter. They should. These three are your big-name players. They're the ones you'll likely see going after Bryce Young first. But it's the next wave of edge rushers (and their development) that means the most to what this position looks like in two years. With Ebiketie and Harrison, they're the future of the position. The quicker their impacts are felt, the better for the Falcons.
Big swing coming for Jalen Mayfield: After being on injured reserve for majority of the 2022 season, Mayfield came back in 2023 at full health. Throughout training camp, the Falcons saw fit to move him back to his original position of tackle. He spent his rookie year taking starting reps at left guard before a back injury sidelined him last year. As time passes, though, Mayfield's opportunities seem to be dwindling. On Tuesday, he spent the day working at tackle with the third-team offensive line. OL Joshua Miles took reps at left tackle with the second team, while OL Tyler Vrabel held down the tackle spot on the right side of the protection. Does this mean Mayfield's chances of making this initial 53-man roster are slim? Not necessarily. I've just spent the last 500 words explaining all of the different looks and packages the Falcons were trying out Tuesday. What I am saying is, it's something we'll need to monitor in the Falcons' final preseason game vs. the Steelers on Thursday.
"It's difficult," Mayfield said of the 53-man roster cuts looming. "You work for it all season with the same guys, and everybody knows the day comes and you have to put it in the back of your mind and know the opportunity that you have in front of you. ... For me, I'm just trying to make the most out of my opportunity and go out there and do what I know I can do."
Desmond Ridder, big tea guy: If the Falcons QB1 has a sponsorship deal with Halls cough drops before the year is out, don't act like you didn't see it coming. Come to find out after practice Tuesday, Ridder has a specific regiment to take care of the 'ole vocal chords (because yes, he needs them if you didn't know). Ridder shared he uses seven or eight cough drops a day. He's also a big tea guy. His tea of choice? Green tea with a little lemon and honey. If he's feeling frisky, he puts a cough drop in the tea. Learn something new every day, don't ya?
Well, if you are not here for the tea takes, here's a Ridder football take for those of you who are interested in that, too. Asked what he took from the one drive he and the first-team offense had last Friday night against the Bengals, Ridder said while the drive didn't end how he or anyone wanted to, something that did give members of the unit confidence was their overall ability to do what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. The only times they slowed down or got off schedule was because they slowed themselves down with self-inflicted wounds.
From a pure play standpoint, everything that they wanted to do, they could do. That included hitting London deep with a 50/50 ball down the sideline, finding running lanes for Robinson and consistently spreading the ball out to different playmakers. Ridder said it goes back to the Falcons feeling confident in the scheme itself, as well as their understanding of it. They have things to clean up, of course. They want to end a long drive like that with six points, not a turnover in the red zone. They want to play clean, not with three penalties getting them off-kilter. These things can be remedied, though, and Ridder said it's something this offense took ownership of this week. --TM
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Cincinnati Bengals during Preseason Week 2.