After a prolonged off-season, the new look Atlanta Falcons will take the field on Friday. They will face a familiar pre-season foe in the Tennessee Titans. From playing them in several pre-seasons and seeing old faces return (Harry Douglas, Jonathan Massaquoi), Tennessee is a somewhat compelling opponent. Unlike past pre-seasons, this game takes place during the first week of pre-season instead of the pivotal week three spot.
The first week of pre-season usually showcases the second and third stringers competing for roster spots. It wouldn't be logical to mention obvious starters, when they will play only one quarter. The focus will be on players competing for starting positions amongst the offensive line, along with key backups that can add another element to Kyle Shanahan's offense. Obviously, the defense will be heavily featured with so many new players and how fans are anxious to see immediate upgrades from last year's porous unit.
What players will stand out amongst a crowded front seven
Besides the new coaching staff, depth within the front seven seems to be the most refreshing adjustment in Atlanta. In contrast to last season, the array of intriguing players that have been added through free agency and the draft has to make fans optimistic. Instead of wishing for Massaquoi or Malliciah Goodman to break out, Atlanta has several options that can potentially be difference makers. Vic Beasley is the most likely candidate to become a difference maker, but his reps will likely be limited on Friday.
Players such as O'Brien Schofield and Grady Jarrett should receive extensive playing time. Schofield's versatility and speed off the edge make him an ideal situational role player. While it's highly unlikely that Jarrett receives significant playing time this season, the coaching staff should be grooming for a much bigger role in 2016. Nobody within the front seven stood out during last year's abysmal pre-season. That was highlighted through being torched by a mediocre Houston offense. Through several players having upside on the roster, someone is bound to make an eye-opening impression. The front seven's play will be monitored heavily, given the drastic changes amongst personnel.
Terron Ward's opportunity of a lifetime
When an opportunity knocks, an unexpected player always has the potential to emerge from the pack. The un-drafted rookie out of Oregon State has exceeded minimal expectations throughout training camp. Ward has grabbed headlines through showcasing a different element compared to the current rotation of running backs. His power running style provides plenty of intrigue, due to the lack of power backs on the roster. After drafting Tevin Coleman in the third round, questions immediately emerged about the short-yardage and goal line situations. Kyle Shanahan's brilliance seemed to be the general answer in handling those situations.
Ward's emergence could provide the solution to those problems. Atlanta did carry four running backs on their roster last season. That doesn't hold much credence, due to the coaching staff’s new methods. It's still something to keep in mind, especially if Ward continues to be productive. Coleman and Devonta Freeman won't play on Friday. That leaves Ward, Antone Smith, Jerome Smith, and Michael Ford as the active running backs. At minimum, Ward should receive six to eight carries. A potential new piece to an already talented running back core would be very beneficial in keeping opposing defenses off-balance.
Competition within the interior offensive line
Something needs to be clarified involving training camp battles. The first official depth chart doesn't hold much merit. It won't occur this week, but the upcoming games against New York and Miami will determine the depth chart for week one. The "demotion"of Jon Asamoah is surprising, given his steady play last season. It's not something to be concerned with just yet. Competition is a word that Dan Quinn has preached about for months. Roddy White even mentioned that word, when describing Quinn as a head coach. The zone-blocking scheme can be a difficult adjustment for certain linemen. From dealing with an ankle injury in OTA's to not playing in a zone-blocking scheme for multiple seasons now, Asamoah has to prove his worth in the coaching staff’s mind.
Chris Chester's experience and James Stone's athleticism have caught the coaching staff's attention. Whether both players are starting caliber guards will possibly be answered in the next three weeks. According to our own Jeanna Thomas, Joe Hawley isn't settled at center yet. It would be a major surprise to see Mike Person unseat him for the starting position. That doesn't discount Person's value at center, due to Hawley's injury history. With Peter Konz possibly not making the roster, Person's development should be observed closely. The entire offensive line will be questioned heavily, given their youth and unspectacular play from last season. In terms of competition, circumstances drastically change when focusing on the interior line compared to both tackle positions.
Every cornerback not named Desmond Trufant
Despite feeling optimistic about Atlanta's secondary becoming an asset, many questions linger at the cornerback position. Robert Alford will be facing plenty of adversity throughout the season. His flashes of brilliance are hindered by his tendency of being over aggressive. Whether it's from being penalized too often or jumping on double moves, Alford needs to show improvement in those areas. Jalen Collins is one of the bigger names that will be watched closely throughout pre-season. After struggling in training camp, his conversion into a real game should be fascinating.
Collins’ size and ability to jam at the line of scrimmage should fluctuate well under Dan Quinn's scheme. The next step for his development will be adjusting to covering speed receivers with crisp route running. That seemed to be one of his bigger flaws in college. Phillip Adams' emergence in training camp provides another component for this category. After being on four teams in five years, many were left skeptical about this particular signing. His surprising play in training camp has made him a legitimate option at nickel corner. Don't forget about Dezmen Southward's conversion towards playing cornerback either. Youth has certainly become apparent across this cornerback unit. The amount of high-round draft picks (excluding Adams) used on each cornerback increases the pressure for not only them, but also the future of Thomas Dimitroff.
It's officially Hank time
The headline-stealing wide receiver will finally be unleashed. Hankerson's standout play in OTA's has continued throughout training camp. Competition at the third wide-receiver position was always going to be one of the more thrilling battles in training camp. Based on reports, Hankerson has blown away the competition. His breakaway speed and athleticism has always made him an intriguing prospect. If he continues to use his hands more rather than his body, his upside is unlimited. Drops were a constant issue throughout his career in Washington. Quinn has praised his ability to make difficult catches in media scrums. After dealing with injuries and poor quarterback play over the past two seasons, the time is now for Hankerson to reach his full potential.
Ricardo Allen was excluded from this list, due to how the first pre-season game usually operates on a quarter basis. Allen may receive extra reps, so he can gain more experience at a new position. It’s still not enough to formulate an honest first opinion of him at free safety. Circumstances will certainly change next week, as the training camp standout could play the entire first half against the Jets.