Second-year Atlanta Falcons defensive back Dezmen Southward knows he's fighting for his job this week with no guarantee he'll secure a spot on the team's 53-man roster.
Southward came to the Falcons last year as a third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin. Although he recorded an interception and a sack, he had minimal impact as a rookie while playing free safety. Then he made the transition to cornerback under new coach Dan Quinn, who viewed the 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound Southward as possessing the ideal body type and speed he desires at corner. Southward has not had a smooth transition to the new role, though, and hasn't really made any plays this preseason.
"The speed and the length that you see when we played at the end of the line, that's what I like," Quinn said of Southward. "The transition, sometimes when you see a lot at safety and you move over to corner, where I don't have to have the wide vision as much as I do, so I think the transition sometimes can be easier going from safety down the corner than vice versa, where I look at a little and then I go back into the middle and I look at a lot. In that way, we've been pleased with him at the end of the line."
Thursday's final preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens is important to Southward if he hopes to open the eyes of the coaches before the roster is set Saturday by 4 p.m. ET.
"I don't see it as any more important than any other game," Southward said. "Every game is very important in terms of you want to go out and show what you've learned and that you can compete and play at a high level.
"I'm not going to say the transition (to cornerback) has been crazy difficult. But definitely, anytime you make a transition, it's hard. I think just getting the eyes and getting that discipline, you're looking at different things. Your keys are totally different. Your technique is totally different. And that's something that I'm trying to embrace and trying to continue to get better, and I feel like I have. But in that sense, I'm very excited about this game."
Southward hasn't been as physical as he's needed to be or made enough plays on the ball to make a strong impression. The cornerback group ahead of him includes starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford along with newcomer Phillip Adams, rookie second-round pick Jalen Collins, and even undrafted rookie Kevin White.
Injury issues haven't helped Southward's cause, either, as he had offseason wrist surgery and arthroscopic knee surgery in May.
"The knee hurt me a little bit," Southward said. "At the same time, it wasn't so much the knee as it was the timing of it. If it was something I could have gotten done a couple of months earlier, it would have been a totally different story. But the fact that it was so close to camp, you don't get a chance to get exactly where you want to be. It's a little setback, but everyone playing football has setbacks. It's not really an excuse or anything. It's not a crutch for me."
Being a higher draft pick puts a little added scrutiny on Southward. The Falcons already have cut ties with three of the nine members of the 2014 draft class in fourth-round pick Prince Shembo, fifth-round pick Marquis Spruill, and seventh-round pick Yawin Smallwood -- all linebackers.
Southward has a close bond with Spruill, who never recovered from tearing his ACL as a rookie.
"Marquis is a good friend of mine, but everyone has a different situation," Southward said. "I think no matter how high or how low of a draft pick you are, you can't succumb to or view it as more pressure. That's not how I see it at all. I see it as an opportunity. I see it as an opportunity to improve, to get better and fight. What are we all if we can fight through a little adversity? That's something that I'm looking forward to showing that I can do. I don't think it's going to be a big deal for me."
So if the coaches sat him down right now and asked why he belongs on the roster, how would Southward respond?
"I just think my work ethic, the way I work and the way I grind," he said. "I'm not sitting here complaining or crying about many other things that other guys would. I fight through injuries. I come to play and I prepare. And I'm continuing to get better."
We'll see how it all comes together for Southward on Thursday night as he sits on the roster bubble.