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On the bubble: Frank Darby, John FitzPatrick make a case in first two weeks of camp

With cut down day looming at the end of this month, Scott Bair and Tori McElhaney break down who they think are contending for just a few open spots.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Well, we've made it through the first two weeks of training camp. Congrats. But we're still grinding along, that's for sure, and there's no rest for the weary as the Falcons depart on Monday for Miami with the Dolphins hosting joint practices on Tuesday and Wednesday.

That's in the near future, yes, but don't think for a second the looming 53-man cut down day at the end of August isn't top of mind, too, despite being in the more distance future. For many of these players at training camp, it's likely all they can think about.


With this in mind, Scott Bair and I (hi, it's Tori McElhaney here) will be coming to you at each true off day to either share our own 53-man roster projections (which we did last week), or to highlight a handful of players on the bubble we'd like to make a case for when cut down day arrives (which is what you're reading now).

There are any number of guys Scott and I could have chosen, but we narrowed this specific list down to five: Two offensive skill guys and three defensive backups. Without further ado, let's dive into the list.


WR Frank Darby

I have to say, Darby was getting lost in the shuffle before the pads went on earlier this week. And that's not something I am used to saying about one of the most energetic guys on the team. He didn't let my eyes wander for too long, though, because in terms of weeks? Darby's had himself one since the first day of pads on Monday.

Over the course of five practices this week, Darby has stood out. His athleticism and body control has been on display. He's made a few notable catches where he had to contort his body this way or that to get the separation he needed against a defensive back in coverage. He received the loudest of, "ooohs" from the crowd at practice on Saturday, as he made a diving catch down the sideline.

For arguments sake, let's say the Falcons have one - maybe two - open spots on the 53-man roster for wide receivers. Let's also say four of those spots are taken by Drake London, Mack Hollins, Scotty Miller and KhaDarel Hodge. That leaves players like Darby, Penny Hart, Josh Ali, Slade Bolden, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Zay Malone fighting for - at most - a couple of spots.

Of this list, Darby is the only player this regime actually drafted. Does that count for something come cut down day? If he does some good things in the Falcons preseason games, it won't have to. With this being said, Darby is someone to watch when the clock starts ticking in the Falcons preseason games. --TM

TE John FitzPatrick

Like Darby, FitzPatrick is another Day 3 pick of this front office who has found himself on the bubble in 2023. When speaking to the media a few days into camp, FitzPatrick noted some guys joke around that he still has his rookie status as an injury kept him off the field for majority of the 2022 season as he found himself on practice squad IR. Now, FitzPatrick is back to 100 percent, and you can see the thought process behind why the Falcons drafted him in the first place.

FitzPatrick is every bit of his 6-foot-7 frame, and so his strength as a tight end is more in line with what the traditional of the tight end position is. He's an addition in the run game, blocking at the line of scrimmage alongside the offensive line or downfield when needed. It's why some may overlook FitzPatrick's true strength in training camp, when run game blocking involves players going at - maybe - 50 percent, with no tackling.

That doesn't mean FitzPatrick's odds of making the 53-man roster dwindle because of this. I actually think it helps his case considering how he fits a mold that other flashier tight ends maybe don't. Kyle Pitts and Jonnu Smith are going to have significant roles in this offense as pass catchers. In a backup role, MyCole Pruitt and Parker Hesse can, too, though not in as flashy of a state. If the Falcons choose to carry a fifth tight end, they'll be bringing along someone with a little different skillset, and perhaps that's a good thing.

(And we all know how Arthur Smith likes his tight ends. I always joke that you should always add an extra tight end to the 53-man roster simply because Smith is the head coach. I still think this applies, which is good news for someone like FitzPatrick). --TM


DB Darren Hall

Darren Hall played 633 defensive snaps last season, with a good chunk of them executed well. So, yes, it seems a little odd for someone to be on the "bubble" after a statement like that. Such is life in a defensive backfield upgraded with both quality and depth.

Hall is firmly on the bubble these days, especially with Mike Hughes and Tre Flowers joining the squad and Dee Alford emerging as he has. How many cornerbacks will the Falcons keep? Six? It might be tough to sneak into that crew, especially with Jeff Okudah expected to return in the first few weeks of the regular season. That's why Hall is battling for a roster spot. That doesn't mean he won't get one, but there's more tension than in years past.

We've seen Darren make some plays on the ball this summer. Of that there is no doubt. He needs to keep doing that to earn a spot among the most competitive spots on the roster. -- SB


S DeMarcco Hellams

Arthur Smith was asked about Alabama product and seventh-round NFL draft pick DeMarrco Hellams earlier this week and had this to say:

"He was a fun player to evaluate. The guy got there, came out of a big program there in [Washington] D.C. in DeMatha, went down to Alabama and persevered and you just saw him pop all over the tape. You saw that today. I think he's done a really good job as a communicator back there and he's a guy that I'm really excited to see in the preseason. We'll see how that translates."

Hellams has a somewhat difficult road to the 53-man roster, at the safety spot. Jessie Bates III, Richie Grant, Jaylinn Hakwins and Micah Abernathy seem to be the first four in that somewhat small position group, but Hellams' versatility and special teams prowess make him in interesting prospect that could be worth keeping. Preseason games will play a significant role in what happens with Hellams and the safety position, though ending up on the practice squad isn't the worst thing for a player like this. He's an aggressive playmaker who fits the Falcons mold. -- SB

DL Albert Huggins

You probably didn't think much of the Albert Huggins signing, especially after so many higher profile free agents joined the squad. Honestly, neither did I. But this dude keeps showing up, whether it's knocking down passes or creating havoc in the backfield.

For those not in the know, Huggins is a fourth-year veteran out of Clemson who has played sparingly in the NFL to this point. But, if you look at the defensive line, there's a spot up for grabs on the back end of this rotation.

Let's assume that Calais Campbell, David Onyemata, Grady Jarrett, Ta'Quon Graham and Zach Harrison are absolute locks. I think Justin Ellis has a legit shot at the roster considering his role as a true nose tackle. That leaves Huggins, Timmy Horne and Joe Gaziano to battle this thing out for a final spot. Huggins has flashed. How will he do in preseason games as compared to others in this battle? That will be key when fleshing out the back end of this defensive line rotation. --SB

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch during the 2023 AT&T Training Camp.

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