The lengthy off-season is finally over. Football returns to the Georgia Dome, as unproven players try to solidify their place on the roster. The first pre-season game heavily features backups from second-stringers to fourth-stringers. Both starting units will play one series against Washington to shake off some rust.
If you didn't read my previews from last season, this article focuses on the most intriguing elements of a particular game. With the starters playing a minimal role, several roster battles will be highlighted. Questions about personnel at certain positions will start to be answered. Here are five things to watch for tonight.
Unproven cornerbacks looking for an edge
The front office has been very active over the past month. By signing multiple wide receivers and defensive ends, they are looking to intensify the competition at both positions. While adding Dwight Freeney was a smart move, there are lingering questions at cornerback. No veteran cornerback has been signed, which could indicate that Quinn is confident about Jalen Collins' four-week replacement being on the roster.
Each cornerback will have an opportunity to showcase their ability. After being touted during mini-camp, there hasn't been much praise or criticism about Akeem King. That isn't necessarily a bad sign. It does make tonight's game more pivotal, as he needs to make a positive impression.
C.J. Goodwin and Brian Poole are considered the biggest camp standouts. Similar to King, Goodwin is a converted cornerback that possesses Dan Quinn's physical preferences (six foot three), though he was originally a wide receiver. Poole is known for playing physical as well. With each player essentially unproven, this is a unique open competition, where preseason will ultimately determine who will be a valuable contributor during the early stages of the regular season.
Dissecting the large amount of wide receivers on the roster
There are currently eleven wide receivers on the roster. Aldrick Robinson will likely join Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Justin Hardy as a roster lock. He is standing out at training camp with his speed and separation ability. That leaves seven wide receivers competing for two roster spots. Similar to cornerback, each player will receive playing time at some point. Contributing on special teams will be crucial. Someone will need to emerge, if Eric Weems is going to be supplanted.
Nick Williams' excellent hands and route running makes him a favorite for a spot, as well. The coaching staff utilized him quite a bit last season. Although he is certainly limited, Williams made a few big plays on third down. Devin Fuller was drafted to replace Devin Hester as a returner. The seventh round pick has shined as a wide receiver, particularly from making catches across the middle. J.D McKissic deserves recognition following his absurd catch from earlier this week. This should be an intriguing battle, as the Falcons desperately need quality depth at wide receiver.
The right guard battle begins
After many predicted this would be the most competitive training camp battle, it hasn't received much publicity so far. Chris Chester is currently listed as the starter. That still hasn't prevented Mike Person and Wes Schweitzer from receiving first team reps. All three guards should have a fair opportunity to start for what appears to be an above-average offensive line.
Chester needs to prove that he fully recovered from shoulder surgery. Mike Person's weekly miscues and Andy Levitre's penalties overshadowed Chester's decline during the second half of the season. He was being pushed around far too often, while not having his usual positive impact as a run blocker.
Person is back at his natural position. The athletic guard is an ideal fit for Kyle Shanahan's zone blocking scheme. Schweitzer is moving from tackle to guard. Many scouting reports indicated that the sixth round pick needs to become stronger. This will be a very important showcase for him, as he will likely play for most of the second half. Although the depth chart lists him behind Levitre, they still may try him at right guard.
First look at the rookies
Although Keanu Neal will probably play only one series, every other rookie should receive more playing time. Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell are expected to play significant roles this season. This is a rare occasion for key players, where Quinn could use both linebackers for multiple possessions. Campbell is still adapting to a new role. Jones was initially expected to play on the weak side, before Quinn decided to utilize him at middle linebacker. They need every ounce of experience, before opening day against Tampa Bay.
Schweitzer will probably receive the most snaps out of all the rookies. Austin Hooper should play the second most, as the intriguing tight end finds his place in Shanahan's offense. Converting red zone opportunities proved to be of the Falcons' major deficiencies last season. Hooper is capable of playing an integral role behind reviving an unacceptable flaw. With Julio Jones constantly attracting attention, other players need to win one-on-one matchups. Hooper's size and ability to catch contested passes can give Matt Ryan a much-needed red zone target.
Running backs potentially overtaking Terron Ward
Terron Ward is going to miss tonight's game with a left ankle injury. That allows Gus Johnson and Brandon Wilds extra playing time to make their case for the third-string running back spot. Johnson is known as a two-down grinder, who can run between the tackles. His lack of explosion and versatility forced Dallas to release him. Atlanta does need a bigger running back on the roster. Ward was their biggest back last season, but failed to excel in several situations.
Wilds earned praise during the off-season. The undrafted rookie struggled with injuries during his time at South Carolina. His downhill running style could compliment the explosive combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Both running backs will need to contribute on special teams and show their pass-blocking capabilities. Besides not standing out as a runner, Ward's inability to handle blitzes was very disappointing, especially after Quinn praised him as a pass blocker. He shouldn't be guaranteed a roster spot, as Johnson and Wilds look to make a strong first impression.