Head coach Mike Smith began this year's training camp with a message that was a little more than coach speak and he continued it throughout the duration of camp. From Day 1 he said he anticipated a highly competitive camp, with fights for roster spots more heated than any other season except his first in 2008. It looked like he was right, and when the final cuts were made over the weekend, there were some surprises and a number of young players emerged with jobs.
"I'll say this, we let a lot of good football players, a lot of good men, go over the weekend," Smith said Monday. "Tough decisions."
Among the players that made the roster were five that many probably didn't expect to be around when it was all said and done. Linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, offensive tackles Terren Jones and Ryan Schraeder and running Josh Vaughan all did enough in camp and the preseason to not be ignored.
"They have competed, and we said it was going to be open competition in our evaluation. They won the competition and that is why they are here on our squad. They will have an opportunity to help us win football games this year."
Worrilow, Bartu, Jones and Schraeder joined the Falcons as undrafted free agents following this year's draft. Vaughan entered the league as an undrafted player in 2009 and after bouncing around practice squads he landed on the active roster of the Panthers in 2010.
In total, the Falcons have 12 undrafted players on their roster and eight of those were original college free signings by the Falcons. Of the final 53, 12 players are rookies.
The Falcons coaching staff kept some quantities at positions that are departures from the past. Most notable is the six running backs the Falcons are carrying this year. They have kept five running backs (including a fullback) in each of the last three years, but the impressive preseason that Vaughan put together made that number more fluid this year.
This is not the first year they've entered the season with 10 defensive backs, but the breakdown is a little different. In most seasons Smith and his staff carried five corners and four safeties, except in 2011 when they took four safeties and six corners. This year they kept five of each. One of those safeties, veteran Shann Schillinger, said as the preseason progressed he began to get the sense of some of the numbers they may keep, although he never got caught up in the day-to-day counting of position spots.
Schillinger is among those five safeties, joining starters William Moore and Thomas DeCoud and rookies Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael. Special teams has long been an important focus for Smith and his staffs and traditionally they've gotten good play in that area from their depth players. This preseason the special teams play was shaky (two returns allowed for touchdowns) and with 25-30 snaps a game taking place on that side of the ball, it was important to get that cleaned up.
Veterans like Schillinger bring a lot of experience to special teams and those experienced players may have been a factor in some of the numbers that were kept for this year's roster. It's possible that special teams coach Keith Armstrong selected some of the players he wanted on his units and they found a way to make the names fit. Schillinger has no doubt that his play on special teams aided in winning a job.
"Obviously being a backup safety, I have to be a special teams guy," he said. "I think I've played quite a few reps on special teams here throughout my career and I think that was probably a factor they liked and wanted to have a little bit of experience on that side."