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Ten Players To Watch During Preseason Games

Everyone on the roster is worth watching, but this is a top ten list...

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jacob Tamme had a quote last week that summed up why the misfires of 2013-2014 aren't important anymore.  He noted that half our guys weren't even here last year, so they really don't care what happened then.

And it's true - more than half of the players in camp were not on last year's 53-man roster, and two thirds of them weren't here for the disastrous 2013 season.

We enter 2015 as the NFL's greatest mystery.  We have a very different roster with a whole lot of new players, a lot of young and emerging players among those who have been around for a while, a new coaching staff, a new defensive scheme, a new blocking scheme, and a new offensive scheme.

So there are question marks galore.  And in most cases, that's a Good Thing.

Why?  Because the rest of the league has absolutely no idea what's about to hit it.

As fans, we'll start seeing answers to some of our own questions this Friday, as the 2015 preseason is now underway.   And with that in mind, here are the ten players that I will be watching most closely over the next several weeks:

1.  Ricardo Allen. Every day it looks more and more like our practice squad cornerback is now our starting free safety.  He's looking like a ball hawk in practice.  But he's inexperienced, and he's learning a new position.  We've also seen in practice that run defense isn't a strong point for him.   He could really use a little game experience, so these four exhibitions will be critical for him - and for the team, if he really is going to be our last line of defense.

2.  Ra'Shede Hageman. We know he's a talented prospect.  He went through his rookie growing pains last year, and he showed some real flash late in the season - on those occasions that last year's coaching staff put him on the field.   The 2015 model 'Shede is just plain scary.  He has slimmed down and has a quicker first step, but he also says he's much stronger - and that the had a "demeanor change" later in the year last year.   Now we'll get to see what he can do in a simplified defensive scheme.

3.  Joe Hawley. He's our starting center.  That's not in doubt - we love his toughness, athleticism, and that "nasty first punch" that made former line coach Paul Boudreau want him as a Falcon.  The thing to watch will be the ongoing progress in his recovery.  His snaps in practice have continued to be limited, and we're within a month of games that count.  Our track record for estimating player recovery time has been dreadful over the last seven years.  If he has a setback in his recovery, we have a problem.

4.  Leonard Hankerson. Signing him raised some eyebrows, as he hasn't been all that stellar in the past.  But new OC Kyle Shanahan wanted him here in Atlanta, and in camp we have seen why.  He is running routes very well, and he has shown an impressive catching radius -  particularly along the sidelines.  With a good preseason, he'll be pushing hard for playing time as an outside receiver.

5.  Justin Hardy. When Harry Douglas first arrived in Atlanta in 2008, he had good speed but wasn't strong as a route runner.  Hardy doesn't quite have Harry's rookie speed. but so far he has demonstrated the value of precision route running.  He is already developing a good chemistry with quarterback Matt Ryan and seems like a natural in the slot.  Now it's time to see if he can keep getting separation against other teams' defenders.

6.  Brooks Reed. He's currently battling a hip issue and a strained groin muscle, so his playing time in at least the first exhibition may be limited.  But we have needed a linebacker with pass defense skills for years, and Reed might be it.  Expect to see him as a starting OLB, and more importantly as one of the LBs in the nickel package.

7.  Tyson Jackson. He signed on to be run-stuffing 3-4 DE.  Unfortunately, early injuries prompted former DC Mike Nolan to play a base four man front, so Jackson was a square peg in a round hole.  This year he has slimmed down for the new scheme and has been working at Jay Glazer's gym to get himself ready for a new year in a new scheme.  He has traditionally been a two-gap lineman.  He has said he expects to play more single gap this year as an end -  but Quinn's 4-3 under scheme often uses one of the ends in a two-gap role.   The Falcons are a mystery team, and he may be the biggest enigma of them all.  If he steps forward in the new scheme, Atlanta's defensive line could be deadly.  If he doesn't step up and shake the "square peg" status, he might not make the roster at all.

8.  Levine Toilolo. If you're looking for someone to label as the most improved among the returning Falcons, he might be it.  In practice, he has been catching passes over the middle, showing that he is working hard to shake the "hands of stone" label.   But can he keep doing it in games with real tackling?  Look for Tamme to be the primary TE, but Toilolo can lock down his roster spot and potentially claim the #2 role in preseason.

9.  T.J. Yates. The Akeem Dent trade came right at the end of minicamp last year, so Yates was not here for OTAs or minicamp and was working with his new teammates for the very first time when training camp started.  He looked dreadful in the preseason games.  This year, many of us are inclined to say that Sean Renfree is again looking better than Yates in practice.  But I'm inclined to say that Yates has looked much better than last year, and he has surprised me with his accuracy in several drills and 11-on-11 segments.  The question will be what he can show in game action.  If he fares well, many fans will breathe easier.  And if he doesn't, he'll be off the team.

10.  Allen Bradford. What a long, strange trip it's been.  Bradford was a running back coming out of college in 2011.  Tampa drafted him in the sixth round, but he didn't make their roster or their practice squad.  Seattle signed him to their practice squad and converted him to linebacker.  He has mostly been a practice squad hand since then while learning how to play defense.  After playing him in one game in 2013, Seattle tried to drop him back down to their practice squad.  The Giants scooped him up off of waivers and kept him for the rest of the season.   He was in camp with the Jaguars in 2014 but didn't make the team.  Seattle resigned him to their practice squad, released him shortly afterwards, but then plucked him from Cleveland's practice squad to the regular roster.  So Quinn is familiar with him and wanted him here for camp.  He's just one of many candidates for the backup LB roles, and all of them are worth watching (Joplo Bartu and Nate Stupar could easily be on this list with Bradford).  But he's the most unusual story of the group, and he's one that we haven't seen before.

Okay, I lied.  We have FAR more than ten players to watch.  Here are five more:

11.  Terron Ward. One of the biggest disappointments of preseason is that we won't get to see the much anticipated RB battle between Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on the field.  Instead, the competition between them will be in the training room, as we find out which of our horses can recover from a strained hamstring in time to start the regular season.  In the meantime, Ward has been a gem in training camp.  If he keeps it up in preseason, he'll be on the roster as a fourth running back even when Freeman and Coleman return.

12.  Jalen Collins. He may have been a surprise draft pick due to his past off-field issues and his lack of playing experience.  And as a work in progress, he had a huge setback when a foot injury caused him to miss most of OTAs.   He has a lot of catching up to do, though he's showing progress.  The next step will be to get him preseason game reps and hope that he fares better in the fourth than he does in the first.

13.  Mike Person. Signing him as a free agent may have inspired yawns from fans, but this is another player that was hand-picked by the new coaching staff because he fits the profile for the new scheme. He has had extensive time with the first unit at left guard and has cross-trained at both tackle and (strangely enough) center.  There are a lot of players competing for very few spots on the offensive line.  Person is solidly in the mix, appears highly likely to take one of the roster spots, and might even be a candidate for a starting spot with a solid preseason.

14.  Adrian Clayborn. He has been one of the standouts of training camp, and Quinn absolutely raves about him.  The most interesting twist is that the Falcons have moved him inside, the way the Giants used Justin Tuck so successfully once upon a time.   If he can turn it on from the interior with Beasley firing from the LEO role, we might have the kind of pass rush we haven't seen since the Mora/Donatell years.

15.  Collin Mooney. He has a lot of fans rooting for him, and Patrick DiMarco doesn't exactly have an unbreakable hold on the fullback role.   Mooney has looked pretty good in practice, making this shape up to be an interesting competition.

And yes, the list could keep going -  Beasley, Bartu, Chester, Stone, Schraeder, Stupar, Renfree, Polumbus, Antone Smith, Akeem King, etc, etc, etc. are all worth watching closely.   But hey, gotta stop somewhere.

So who are the key players that YOU will be watching in the exhibition games?