We've finally reached that point of the year where football fans can come out of their slumber and prepare for the promise and hope of a new season. Every team starts the season at 0-0 and with the hope of being able to compete for a slot in the playoffs, and even for the title of champion.
But before we get to February, we have to get through August. And this month will be critical for evaluating talent and identifying areas of need. The next four preseason games will be the most important for some men, as they seek to make their spot on the 53 man roster, or survive and make the practice squad.
Given that, here are some things to look out for at the Thursday Falcons/Bengals preseason game.
Here's the reality of the first preseason game: if we see any of our starters, it will likely be for only one series - two at the most. Guys like Ryan, Jackson, Gonzo, Julio and Roddy will not likely see more than a handful of snaps, if any. And honestly, we really shouldn't be concerned about them playing.
Our bigger concern on offense will be with the new offensive line. In particular, the right side of the line is one to pay attention to. If you're a reader of this site, you'll know that the biggest concern has been over the right tackle position - where Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes were competing after the release of stalwart Tyson Clabo. However, with the recent injury to Mike Johnson - it's looking like a competition between Holmes and UDFA Ryan Schrader out of Valdosta State. If there's a bigger concern on this team than the right tackle spot, I don't know what it is.
Elsewhere on offense, it's quite likely that second year QB Dominique Davis will get the majority of snaps for the game. It will be interesting to see how he's developed, and to see if his solid camp performance so far translates onto the field. Rookies Sean Renfree and Seth Doege will also likely get some snaps, though both are likely competing for a spot on the practice squad at this point.
There's also a backlog of receivers and running backs who are hoping to make an impression. Guys like Kevin Cone and Drew Davis are front-runners, but others like Martel Moore, James Rodgers and Rashad Evans are all hoping to leap frog the Davis/Cone and onto the 53 man roster. Running backs like Josh Vaughn and Donald Russell have shown flashes, so pay attention to those two names as well.
Tight end also figures to be a position to watch, though it's looking like our roster will be Gonzalez, Coffman and Toilolo. Early word on Coffman is that he's having a strong camp. While Toilolo has been adjusting to the NFL game, it will be interesting to pay attention to what he can do as a blocker and a receiver.
Similar to the offense, don't expect to see our defensive starters play a ton of snaps. Guys like Osi, Weatherspoon, Moore and DeCoud will likely play a series or two before heading to the bench. However, given this year's draft class, this is the side of the ball to pay the most attention to.
On the line, rookies Maponga and Goodman will probably get a good number of snaps. I'd also expect to see second year DE Jonathan Massaqoui get a good bit of playing time. If the Falcons are going to improve the pass rush this year, one of these guys is going to have to step up. Early word on Massaqoui and Goodman has been encouraging, while Maponga is about where you'd expect a rookie to be.
At tackle, the bulking up of Cliff Matthews offers some intriguing options. Also, it will be interesting to see if Travian Robertson has progressed from last year and can move himself into more snaps on the rotation. Falcons anathema Peria Jerry returns on the final year of his contract, so it will be interesting to see if he can produce more than a butt tackle as his play of note.
At linebacker, there are quite a few guys to pay attention to. Without a doubt, Falcons fans will be pulling for free agent Brian Banks as he seeks to make the roster after having spent 10 years wrongly convicted of rape. Word in camp is he's progressing nicely and has shown some great strength. This will be his first meaningful game since he was in high school ten years ago. Also, free agent signing Joplo Bartu - other than having an epic name - is showing flashes at outside linebacker, so he will be another name to pay close attention to. Second year linebacker Pat Schiller spent last year on the practice squad and looks to crack the 53 man roster this year. Finally, look out for Kroy Biermann at OLB. The Falcons have been splitting his time between OLB and DE in camp, so it will be interesting to see if he takes a significant number of snaps as a linebacker.
Our starting safeties are locked in place, but given the injury history of William Moore, there's a good chance one of our backups will see some time during the season. Second year pro Charles Mitchell has been solid in camp and will likely get a ton of snaps versus the Bengals. The interesting prospects though are Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael. Both were seventh rounders with tons of upside. Motta was thought to be a 3rd or 4th round talent who slipped solely based on a poor 40 time. Ishmael was a defensive superstar at a smaller college, who is known to be a very sure tackler. They will both be competing with Shann Shillinger for a spot on the team.
Finally - and maybe most importantly - is the battle at cornerback. Rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford will likely play the majority of the game. Word out of camp is what you'd expect out of high draft picks - growing pains, but both are showing promise. While Alford has been the front-runner so far in camp, don't rule out Trufant as a day one starter. Both are exceptional athletes who will likely be anchoring our secondary for years to come. Additionally, guys like Peyton Thompson and Terrence Johnson will be competing for the last roster spot as well. Given Nolan's preference for playing out of nickel and dime sets, these guys will be more than just roster fodder - so their performance will be important to watch as well.
Ultimately, when it comes down to it - guys who are on the fringe are going to make this roster based on their ability to contribute on special teams. Someone like James Rodgers - who is not likely to see a snap during the season as a receiver - could potentially make the roster as a returner or gunner on special teams. Pay close attention to many of the fringe names mentioned on kickoffs and punts. It is during special teams that many of these guys will separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Notably, the role of returner is likely up in the air with guys like JaQuizz, Alford, and James Rodgers all in the fold to get opportunities. Given the poor performance of "fair-catch" Franks last year, this could be a critical battle during the preseason.
While some fans hate preseason games, I actually love them. The importance of these games to the rookies and free agents can't be overstated. These guys are going to play their hearts out just to make the roster. And every now and then you'll come across a gem of a player who could end up being a star - if just given the opportunity.