Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last few months, you know the story of linebacker Brian Banks.
After losing 10 years of his life to prison and parole after being wrongfully convicted of rape at the age of 17, Banks was exonerated after his accuser recanted her story. He’s now living through a Rudy-like story of overcoming obstacles. He worked out for a number of NFL teams and was signed by the Atlanta Falcons in early April.
Now, Banks’ next obstacle is making the team. But is there room for him on Atlanta’s roster?
There are currently nine linebackers in camp with the Falcons for what will likely be five spots available on the 53-man roster and possibly one practice-squad opening. Banks has trained mostly as a middle linebacker with the team but has cross-trained at times on the outside.
Linebackers coach Glenn Pires acknowledged learning all the linebacker positions was a team mandate.
“Our guys, we’re all interchangeable,” Pires said. “Everybody’s kind of working with different groups, which is something that we do.”
Even though Banks is a 28-year-old rookie, Pires said he can still see some of the attributes that made him a valued prospect more than 10 years ago. But he also lumped Banks in with the rookies on the roster, developmentally.
“I think they’re all the same,” Pires said. “He’s in with everybody else, and everybody’s doing well.”
That might be a problem for Banks. He’s yet to truly distinguish himself from the rookie linebackers.
There are three linebackers on the roster with considerable experience: Sean Weatherspoon, Stephen Nicholas and Akeem Dent. This trio will likely take three of the five open linebacker spots on the roster.
The front-runners for the remaining spots are Pat Schiller, Robert James, Nick Clancy, Joplo Bartu and Banks. If there are only two spots left on the 53-man roster and possibly one practice-squad opening, it would mean that two of the five players will not hang around after training camp.
James is entering his fourth season with the Falcons and last year finally made a dent on the active roster. He only played seven defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders, but shined on another unit as he led the team with 10 special teams tackles.
James knows this defense and is an extremely valuable part on special teams. It would be difficult to see a situation where he wasn’t on the 53-man roster for just his play on special teams. He’s also had some bright moments in camp, including a play in combined practices with the Cincinnati Bengals where he would have registered a sack had the teams been tackling.
I saw you Robert James! No. 51's # was called for the blitz and he shot through a gap to get there. Didn't bring down QB of course #fnl13— Daniel Cox (@FalconsDCox) August 3, 2013
Schiller spent the 2012 season with the Falcons on the practice squad, which means he, like James, knows this defense and the coaching staff knows everything about Schiller.
In regards to Schiller being positively impacted from his experiences last season, Pires said Schiller benefited from being at every practice and meeting.
“You can’t put a tag on having that time,” Pires said. “That’s all valuable time.”
He used that experience to shine in offseason training sessions with the team.
Pat Schiller led a number of drills as the example of HOW to do something. Seems comfortable and was helping guys get lined up. #RiseUp— Daniel Cox (@FalconsDCox) May 4, 2013
Bartu, an undrafted rookie from Texas State, has been a media favorite through the first two weeks in camp. D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said he’s “turned a few heads” with his play on the practice field.
Ledbetter hasn’t been the only member of the media to mention Bartu. Falcons color analyst and former quarterback Dave Archer has been heard telling people to remember Bartu’s name. The team’s digital content manager Jay Adams praised Bartu for his play during the team’s Friday Night Lights scrimmage and shared some special praise from defensive coordinator Mike Nolan at practice.
Undrafted LB Joplo Bartu made a nice play. Dave Archer tells fans to remember that name. He's right. Remember it. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
My five standout players of the night: Joplo Bartu, Harry Douglas, Desmond Trufant, Levine Toilolo and Donald Russell #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
Clancy, who led the Atlantic Coast Conference with 145 tackles last season, played well during rookie minicamp in May, according to Ledbetter, but hasn’t seen as many shining moments in camp as guys like Bartu and Schiller.
That leaves Banks, a player CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora describes as a guy who it’s “impossible not to root for.” La Canfora tweeted that Banks should see considerable playing time in Thursday’s preseason game against the Bengals, and that might be where Banks has to make his move to grab a roster spot.
Highlight of my first day in Atlanta was chatting with Brian Banks. Impossible not to root for him. Expect him to a play a bunch Thur night— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) August 5, 2013
Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said after practice Tuesday that the team’s first preseason game would be mainly for “evaluating our younger players.” That means the spotlight—not just nationally on television but also from the coaching staff—will be squarely on Banks, Bartu, Clancy and the rest of the five “young” linebackers vying for those final roster spots.
La Canfora is absolutely correct in the fact that it’s hard not to root for such a powerful human-interest story. While most people would be angry at the world after the tribulations the Falcons rookie linebacker has gone through, Banks smiles all the time.
He speaks of opportunities and freedom and shares those thoughts on his personal blog, “My Journey.” Banks is also always the last person off the field, constantly hounded (he smiles the entire time and genuinely loves the moments) by fans for photo ops and autographs.
While jogging off the field with Banks after Friday’s scrimmage at a local high school field (the only way I was going to get a few moments alone with him), Banks answered a few questions and apologized for changing directions and cutting the interview short while the rest of his team hustled for the waiting buses to head back to the team’s facility in Flowery Branch.
Even after spending more than 20 minutes walking the fence signing autographs for fans, Banks spotted someone on his way out. “Sorry, I’ve got to sign that one.” Banks spent the final moments of the night with a U.S. soldier in uniform, sharing a brief conversation and signing a football.
It really is impossible not to root for Banks.
But football decisions are made on the field, and the Falcons are going to carry the best 53 players—up to 61 once their practice squad is established in September—to help them reach their goal of the Super Bowl.
Banks has up to four preseason, full-speed opportunities to shine and possibly make up some ground if he truly is behind in the battle for a roster spot.
Right now, it seems like Banks is on the outside looking in for a potential roster spot.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.