Practices are important, but ultimately the things coaching staffs take most into account when determining a roster are the performances in games. The first week of preseason begins next week and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong say that's when the real evaluations begin.
Based on the coverage that you see of training camps across the league, you'd be safe in believing that camp is the most important prep a team will undergo heading into the regular season. While that may be true to some extent from a mental standpoint, the physical aspect of each player's game really gets a proper dissection once the preseason games begin.
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Week 1 of the preseason will begin for the Falcons next week and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong both look to the four games of the preseason to really get a proper gauge on what they're working with this season. Practices are important, but games are really important.
"Obviously you try to simulate things in practice, you're really thinking more assignments, instincts and reactions in practice," Armstrong said on Thursday. "You've got to wait until you get into the games and the lights are on and guys can go get it."
Although the preseason will end with a 53-man roster for the regular season, there aren't 53 roster positions available on the team. There are starters locked in all over the field and the bottom third of the roster can go any number of ways. Nolan says the plan is always to raise the competition level at those spots first, with an eye to the future.
"You're always trying to flush out the bottom of your roster and replace it with something that might move up," Nolan said. "You'd like to think that every time you draft you're doing exactly that. You'll flush them all out and maybe get a little bit better player."
This happens at all positions and is no different this year. Nolan likes the young players and the competition they're bringing to the field. At linebacker, Nolan is pleased with what he's seeing from undrafted players like Pat Schiller, Joplo Bartu and the other linebackers the Falcons brought in during the offseason and the upcoming week with the first preseason game and combined practices with the Bengals will begin to provide some answers to the defense's depth.
"We didn't draft any linebackers per se, but there's good competition," Nolan said. "There have been some roster things that we're playing with a little bit as well as a couple of free agents that have done a real nice job. I'm kind of excited for Cincinnati when they get here to see what those guys do in that situation."
Armstrong can use practice film to see all of the young players, each an option for a place on one — or all — of his four special teams units. The special teams coordinator is looking at body types, toughness, speed and instincts at their natural positions for how they can translate to special teams. His evaluations of practice are designed to see where players will fit.
With the lights of preseason on, he's looking for players that can turn all of the prerequisites into action on special teams. A good player must first be able to cover opponents' return game and from there, special teams players are created.
"The number one thing you better do if you're going to be good is you better cover," Armstrong said. "You've got to shut the opponent down and most guys who will cover have the aggressiveness to turn around and also go ahead and block on the return game. But you're looking for a core group of guys that can run and have toughness."