ATLANTA — The Falcons took care of the easier decisions Friday, releasing seven players less than 24 hours after their final preseason game.
Now, the tougher calls.
D.J. Shockley or John Parker Wilson or someone else as the third quarterback? Should Thomas Brown be kept as a backup running back and kickoff returner? And what about that defense, which looked downright shaky over the final two exhibitions?
Atlanta was still 13 players over its regular-season roster limit after releasing safety Eric Brock, cornerback Glenn Sharpe, offensive tackle Adam Speer, offensive guard Ryan Stanchek, cornerback Tony Tiller, center Ben Wilkerson and wide receiver Chandler Williams.
"This year, it will be different," second-year coach Mike Smith said. "We are a lot more familiar with these guys. We’ve spent an offseason, a regular season and another offseason together. We are more familiar with these guys, so I think the familiarity with it makes the decisions a little bit more stressful."
The Falcons must get down to 53 players by 4 p.m. today, but there could even more changes before they open the season Sept. 13 against Miami. General manager Thomas Dimitroff brought in four new players after last year’s final cuts and he undoubtedly will be scanning the waiver wire again, looking to fill the most glaring holes.
Defense will certainly be a priority, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. The Falcons already dealt a seventh-round pick to St. Louis for cornerback Tye Hill and may not be done yet.
Christopher Owens, a third-round draft choice who was thought to have a shot at a starting job, might be on the bubble after a dismal performance in Thursday night’s 20-3 loss to Baltimore. He was beaten on a 47-yard pass, then gave up John Beck’s 15-yard touchdown to Eron Riley.
"I do believe that there is room for improvement," Smith said. "The thing that you have to do is realize that you need to put players in all situations to evaluate them. You’re not game-planning in a game like this. You’re putting players in situations to see how they’re going to handle techniques and certain coverages."
Much of the attention is on the third quarterback, though he is likely to be little more than a clipboard holder during the regular season.
After Matt Ryan played one series against the Ravens, the Falcons turned it over to Wilson and Shockley.
Wilson clearly had the stronger showing though it was nothing dazzling: 13 of 19 for 80 yards. The undrafted rookie out of Alabama did lead the Falcons to their only score, Jason Elam’s 45-yard field goal, and would have had a 29-yard touchdown if Robert Ferguson had not dropped a nicely thrown pass in the back of the end zone. Wilson also directed a 63-yard drive in the third quarter, but Elam missed a 35-yard attempt.
Shockley, a former Georgia star who hasn’t done much in three years on the Falcons’ roster, played the final 1«quarters. He was 2 of 6 for 15 yards and threw an interception in what might have been his final pass wearing an Atlanta uniform.
There’s also a chance the Falcons will look to sign someone with more experience to work behind Ryan and Chris Redman.
Brown is another former Georgia player on the bubble, his two years with the team plagued by injuries. There are three running backs ahead of him on the depth chart — Michael Turner, Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling — so he’ll surely be sweating it out this weekend.
Brown broke off a 25-yard run against the Ravens and returned two kickoffs for 47 yards.
"There were mistakes made on my part," he said. "At the end of the day, I tries as hard as I could, gave everything I had out on the field, and hoped for the best."