ATLANTA – The NFL is absolutely a 365-day-a-year sport with the Senior Bowl, the combine, the draft and offseason workouts (minicamps and OTAs) bridging the gap between the Super Bowl and the regular season. As much as we love the offseason, nothing replaces real action on the field, though.
Atlanta’s preseason slate kicks off Thursday in the Georgia Dome against the Washington Redskins and the buzz nearly feels palpable as the Falcons finally return to the gridiron. Head coach Dan Quinn explained the importance of this first preseason game – particularly for the rookies – on Tuesday:
“They’ve had the OTAs, they had minicamp, and now training camp sessions, and then this is the next step,” Quinn said. “It’s always one, especially for the rookies, that’s kind of a really cool night and really devoted toward them as they’re getting their NFL careers started in their first preseason game. So an important one for all of us, especially for them. We really devote that night to them and see what they can and can’t do.”
Quinn said he wants to see effort out there and the strain players go through in new situations. But what should the fans look to glean from Thursday’s game? Here are five things to watch:
5. What will we find out about the running backs?
Devonta Freeman emerged last season with 1,056 rushing yards and 578 yards through the air. He was one of three NFL running back to haul in more than 70 passes and the only rusher to do so with over 1,000 yards on the ground. Even with that breakout performance, second-year back Tevin Coleman keeps pushing for playing time.
The duo of Freeman and Coleman might not see much time as the starters don’t play too many snaps in the first preseason game. But when they’re out there, watch how the Falcons utilize both skill sets. Atlanta has made a conscience effort through training camp to get them the ball through the air and at many different depths in the defense.
Will they play long enough Thursday for fans to determine just how carries might be split between this explosive pair?
4. Keep an eye on the middle of the wide receiver depth chart
As of Thursday morning, there are 11 receivers on the Falcons’ roster. No one’s sure if Atlanta will keep five or six on the 53-man roster once cuts are made, but we do know who Nos. 1-3 are.
Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy already sit entrenched on the 53-man roster. That means eight players are fighting for two, maybe three slots. Not only will their play at receiver matter to the coaching staff, but special teams is important too.
Devin Fuller was a seventh-round pick and has shown expertise in the return game and catching the ball. Aldrick Robinson has shown flashes of brilliance in action against some of the better cover corners on this roster, and Jones took notice Tuesday.
“Yeah, he’s definitely a great guy, a great deep-ball threat,” Jones said of the fourth-year pro out of Southern Methodist. “Great speed, great hands. He’s going to be another addition to the team down the field.”
Eric Weems and Nick Williams bring experience that few other receivers in this portion of the depth chart can. And don’t sleep on J.D. McKissic or Corey Washington either.
3. It’ll be a big night for the younger players
With the starters seeing limited action, there are few better opportunities for first-year players than the preseason’s first game. There are 23 players on Atlanta’s roster with zero NFL experience (includes the six draft picks and 17 undrafted rookies) and another 10 with only one year under their belts.
Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Austin Hooper and De’Vondre Campbell are near-certainties to land roster spots. Fans should still focus on their play Thursday, but look closer at the undrafted crew for clues as to how Quinn and his staff could shape the back end of the roster.
A few names to watch (non-draftees) after shining at times through two weeks of camp: defensive ends Nordly Capi and Efe Obada, cornerback C.J. Goodwin, running back Brandon Wilds and safety Brian Poole, who Quinn mentioned last week and a competitor for the open nickel slot on defense.
“He is a guy who is totally going for it in the biggest way,” said Quinn. “He’s not afraid to challenge. He’s not afraid to step up and go. He’s one of these players that we were talking about honestly that he’s doing the work on the field. Now we need to go put it into some game-like situations too.”
2. Will there be a pass rush?
The number 19 remains firmly burned into the minds of Falcons Nation. Atlanta finished dead last in sacks in 2015 with only 19. While the Falcons didn’t do too much during the draft or early free agency to bolster the team’s pass rush, Dwight Freeney was signed Friday, and should be a huge help.
“It was nice seeing him come off the edge,” Quinn said after Freeney’s first practice in pads. “We had him at his normal spot there at right end. He’s really got a real serious approach in terms of up field and when to come under – and that timing is critical.”
Freeney likely won’t play Thursday, but there are other guys to watch.
Vic Beasley has looked bigger and stronger in camp thus far. His limited snaps Thursday should be must-see TV for Falcons fans. Quinn also made a number of positional changes along the defensive line to create matchup issues. There should also be more of a rush from the interior of the defense as Grady Jarrett and Derrick Shelby attack from defensive tackle positions.
“The addition of moving Adrian [Clayborn] around and then honestly people moving and getting better as you’re going,” Quinn said about the pass rush getting better in 2016. “Grady [Jarrett] is better. Vic [Beasley] is better. We added [Derrick] Shelby and I’m anticipating more out of AC [Adrian Clayborn] with his move out to end.
“Brooks Reed looks a lot better this year. I know I threw a lot of names at you, but in short I’m expecting that group to rise up as well. The other part of that is we added more speed on our entire defense and we’re looking for that to be a factor as well.”
1. How will Atlanta’s linebacker corps look, and be utilized?
Ever more so than how will the Falcons attack the quarterback, the question about the middle of Atlanta’s defense had to be addressed. General manager Thomas Dimitroff used two of the team’s first four draft picks on linebackers and the edict Quinn announced was making this unit faster.
No NFL team allowed more than Atlanta’s 20 rushing touchdowns last season and the middle of the Falcons’ defense was typically where offenses turned to gain much-needed yardage. Becoming faster to the ball was of utmost importance to Quinn in the offseason.
There are a tremendous number of moving pieces in this linebacker corps and the Falcons have mixed and matched just about every feasible combination of linebackers during camp. Who’s going to play with which unit? Which players will be on the field together? Who’s going to shine?
Campbell has been an athletic freak and Reed truly does have an extra step as he looks healthy this season. Keep an eye on them, but focus on the most important topic:
Can Atlanta’s new linebacker corps slow down Washington’s offense?