FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. –On many calendars in NFL franchise offices Sept. 4 is a day circled in red. It's the day all teams must reduce their training camp rosters to the regular season maximum of 53 players.
For the Atlanta Falcons, this year's roster cutdowns may be a little different than years past. With three drafts in the books under the Thomas Dimitroff/Mike Smith regime, the roster is populated with young players whose spots on the team were determined by the current Atlanta front office. For that reason, the Falcons head coach believes the number of final decisions on roster spots is a little smaller than previous seasons.
"I think that there's still a number of decisions that we have to make," Smith said recently. "I don't think that the number is as big as it's been in years past. I think that there are a few positions that we have not made decisions on and I think it's going to really depend on how a couple of these guys play in this ballgame (vs. Jacksonville). It's going to be a big game for them. I think that's one of the big keys for us this week is to continue the evaluation process so that we can put our best 53 men on the field in Pittsburgh."
While Smith maintains that no position on the roster is safe, many veteran players and seasoned and proven performers know their positions are firmly in their grasp. Rookies who were drafted in higher rounds this season or in reason drafts also feel a sense of comfort in knowing they're likely to have a spot on the roster come Sunday.
Lower-round picks, undrafted free agents and offseason additions make up the players battling the hardest for final roster spots. They may be the ninth offensive lineman or the sixth linebacker and many of them know they're being monitored closely on film, at practice, and on the sidelines. Smith wants players who can play confidently and mold themselves into the fabric of the team.
"For one thing, they've got to perform at a high level when they're on the field, that's the most important thing," Smith said. "They've got to be efficient in their job. The second thing that I look for is, is it too big for them? You watch them on the sideline and you see how they interact with the coaches. So much of the game, believe it or not, is not necessarily when your unit is out there on the field. We've got to be able to communicate. Communication is very, very important."
When considering how to piece together the best 53 men, Smith and his staff will have to consider a lot of factors, especially how well the players involved in the final decisions play on special teams. The 53 pieces of the puzzle have to make what the coaches feel is the perfect Falcons fit.
"You have to have contingency plans, we know we can have 53 and it's a matter of how you put it together," the head coach said. "Even though we've basically had the same numbers at the positions through these first two years, that doesn't say that we're going to have the same numbers this year. We're going to try to put the best roster together that will help us in all three phases."
Although Smith cautions that the numbers may be different this year, looking at the numbers the Falcons have carried at each position in recent seasons under the current head coach could reveal what the team may do with their 2010 roster.
In the previous two seasons, the only position groups that differed in opening roster totals were full back and wide receiver.
Last year, the Falcons kept two fullbacks to begin the season instead of the one they started with in 2008.
Six wide receivers were carried in 2008 and only five made the cut last season.
Other position totals for 2008 and 2009: QB: 3; RB: 3; TE: 3; OL: 9; DE: 5; DT: 4; LB: 6; CB: 6; S: 4; K: 1; P: 1; LS: 1.
Players who are heavily cross trained—players with the ability to play multiple positions — like Jason Snelling, Jamaal Anderson, Brian Williams and many offensive linemen allow the coaching staff to carry more players at another position group, perhaps one that is stretched thin because of injury like the wide receiver group is currently with the injuries to Michael Jenkins and Kerry Meier. Receiver could be a position group that carries six like it did in '08 and Troy Bergeron, on the weight of his three catch, 36-yard night against Jacksonville on Thursday, could be the final receiver to get tapped in.
Cornerback seems to be a hotly contest position each season and 2010 is no different. If the coaching staff stays consistent with numbers from the past, all six of the current cornerbacks on the roster will make the team. Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes, Chris Owens, Williams, Chevis Jackson, and rookie Dominique Franks have all been played considerable time during the preseason.
The offensive line is a strength in numbers position, but after the five starters that return from last season, only four additional players will be kept to round out that position, based on previous seasons. With two 2010 draft picks, Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley, likely to be among those that make the roster, only two roster spots remain for Jose Valdez, Brett Romberg, Blake Schlueter, Garrett Reynolds, and Will Svitek, Svitek should have an upper hand on the others since he played well last season in spot starts for starting left tackle Sam Baker, which could leave only one spot remaining. Because of the youth at the position, this may be a position group whose numbers grow by one this year.
Anderson makes the entire defensive line interesting. Because he is now a rotational player at both end and tackle, his presence on the roster, may allow the coaches to carry fewer players than they have in recent years. However, one of Smith's defensive philosophies is a heavy line rotation, so that is unlikely. The final roster spot at defensive tackle may come down to veteran Trey Lewis and second-year man Vance Walker.
Because of the existing depth at linebacker, there appears to be only one spot open. With the addition of first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon to last year's starters Mike Peterson, Curtis Lofton, and Stephen Nicholas and special teams captain Coy Wire, one final spot is up for grabs for third-year linebacker Robert James, '09 draft pick Spencer Adkins, and rookies Weston Johnson and Bear Woods. The play of those four on special teams could determine the final winner.