FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In the last two weeks, every team in the league has felt the weight of the COVID-19 surge that is happening across the country. The good news for the Falcons is that they are 100 percent vaccinated. However, the Falcons have had to make a flurry of roster moves this week as four more players find themselves going on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
The Falcons announced on Wednesday that Jonathan Bullard, Jaylinn Hawkins, Hayden Hurst and Willie Beavers were all being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. This group joins Feleipe Franks and Richie Grant who were placed on the list on Tuesday. On Monday, the Falcons placed Brandon Copeland, Tajae Sharpe, James Vaughters and Dorian Etheridge on the list. With Marlon Davidson and Tyeler Davison still on the list from last week, that brings the total of Falcons players on the reserve/COVID-19 list to 12.
One of the position groups hardest hit by these developments is the safety position, which was already cut down when Erik Harris went on injured reserve with a pectoral injury that required surgery. With Hawkins and Grant on the list, the Falcons are without two very important role players. Hawkins has gotten the start in the last three games for the Falcons in the wake of Harris' injury. Last Sunday, he played in 100 percent of the defensive snaps. But even before Harris was sent to IR, Hawkins played a significant role alongside fellow safety Duron Harmon.
As for Grant, Dean Pees said a couple weeks ago that he saw Grant "taking over" the nickel position for the Falcons. The spot had been a rotating door for Atlanta since losing Isaiah Oliver to a season-ending injury early in the year. They tried Harris there, Avery Williams, too. But as Grant progressed and became more comfortable in Pees' scheme, it seemed he was the next man (or nickel) up. He did some good things with the reps and packages he was given, with Pees encouraging him to find his voice within the defense because of how important that nickel spot is for the Falcons.
In Pees' scheme, the nickel controls a lot within the scope of the defense. Pees said that though the nickel isn't necessarily making the calls on the field, his alignment "dictates everything" for the Falcons. And Grant was doing a much better job of understanding that role the more he repped it. Grant was in on just over 50 percent of the defensive snaps on Sunday.
So, where do the Falcons go from here regarding their safety position?
For the time being, they'll have to lean more heavily on fellow rookies Darren Hall and Williams to perhaps fill Grant's role at nickel. The Falcons are fortunate to still have Harmon, but someone like Shawn Williams could see extended playing time if Hawkins isn't available. The Falcons will be exceptionally thin at the safety position, so for depth, they could call up someone like Luther Kirk from the practice squad, a former strong safety at Illinois State.
However, it's not all bad news for the Falcons regarding the new developments in the nation's spike in COVID-19 cases. For Arthur Smith, he has reasons to feel optimistic, perhaps as optimistic as he's felt about the state of COVID-19 cases in the league in two years.
He feels this way because we know more about the virus, and how to combat it.
This week the CDC recommended the length of isolation for people with COVID-19 to be shortened from 10 days to five days, if asymptomatic. The NFL reflected these changes in their new protocols and guidelines.
Because of these changes, Smith is optimistic the Falcons will see some of their players return to the active roster prior to the start of the game on Sunday in Buffalo. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis, Smith said of players' potential return, but he said ultimately, yes, there is hope.
"There is optimism that we can get some guys back," he said.
Smith thought back to last season and the last time he was set to face the Buffalo Bills. He was with Tennessee at the time and they were experiencing one of the worst outbreaks of the 2020 NFL season. With over 20 players testing positive in the week before the game and the Titans' facility was shut down. the league moved to reschedule said game to be played on the following Tuesday night.
Even with a handful of Falcons players heading to the reserve/COVID-19 list, Smith said there's reason to believe everyone is better equipped to handle positive tests, particularly with the Falcons having a perfect vaccination status.
"Certainly you're way more optimistic than you were," Smith said. "It's kind of ironic that we're playing Buffalo. It was a different experience last year when we were with Tennessee playing Buffalo. The world was a different place."
Though Smith said the virus has evolved, so has our understanding of it as a society. He said the optimist in him feels much better than he did last year or even before vaccines were widely available.
Like Smith said, every person placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list is going to have a different timeline. So, the door isn't completely shut on the Falcons getting players back before kickoff on Sunday. It's a very fluid situation.
According to the relevant NFL protocol on the matter, released on Dec. 16, "any such fully vaccinated individual should be tested every day after the confirmed positive test. Any such fully vaccinated individual shall be released from quarantine, provided they are asymptomatic for at least 24 hours" and complete one of three testing options that produce negative results, an acceptable cycle threshold value or both.
So, the door could open for players to make their return, but it's a gamble to know one way or another right now. It'll be something to monitor as the week goes on both from the Falcons perspective and league wide.
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