The end is almost near. Battles for roster spots will be completed tonight and fans can set their sights towards the regular season. The Falcons finish their preseason against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Dan Quinn mentioned that the starters will play, but that wouldn't be for more than a series. Starters never play significant snaps in the final preseason game.
There are several key positional battles that will be determined in part due to today's game. Running back, wide receiver, and cornerback backup spots are still undecided. Veteran safety Dashon Goldson will be making his debut. The final preseason game usually lacks buzz, considering many players are going to be cut. Here are five things to watch for tonight
Final cornerback showcase
It has been a strange preseason for the young cornerbacks. None of them have been tested very often. Akeem King was pegged as the prime candidate to replace Jalen Collins. Besides Vernon Davis nearly catching a touchdown pass over him, there hasn't been much action for the seventh round pick. C.J. Goodwin has been tested the most between each cornerback competing for a roster spot. At six foot four, the converted cornerback fits Dan Quinn's physical preferences. He was impressive running step for step with DeVante Parker, before slipping at the last second last week. It would be ideal for him to play between 30 to 35 snaps tonight, so the coaching staff can evaluate his capabilities.
Brian Poole hasn't been tested either, but appears to have an inside track to a roster spot. He lined up at nickel corner for the first team defense last week, as Jarvis Landry caught one pass against him. Nothing indicated that Poole was overwhelmed by the occasion. Similar to Goodwin, he should play a significant number of snaps as well. DeMarcus Van Dyke is the other player that could merit some consideration. His speed gives the coaching staff another option, despite not receiving many opportunities during the preseason.
Dashon Goldson's debut
Following Keanu Neal's knee injury, the Falcons signed Dashon Goldson for depth purposes. The once All-Pro safety is looking for an opportunity to resurrect his career. After signing a massive contract for Tampa Bay, Goldson's coverage limitations were exploited. The ultra-aggressive safety couldn't maintain his spot in Washington either.
This shouldn't be viewed as a desperate move. With Kemal Ishmael suffering from a shoulder injury and not playing tonight, they needed some type of safety depth. Goldson is a hard hitter in the same mold as Ishmael. At 31 years old, it's highly unlikely that he'll show any drastic changes as a safety. Goldson could prove to be a valuable contributor on special teams. In a game struggling for storylines, the veteran safety's performance should be something to observe, especially with Ishmael's health issues.
The running back situation
After having a plethora of options at running back, the Falcons only have one healthy backup going into tonight. Cyrus Gray was released on Monday, as they reached an injury settlement. He was one of the better players in preseason. That leaves Brandon Wilds and Terron Ward battling for the final spot. Wilds is sidelined with a knee injury, while Ward is expected to play following a serious ankle injury.
It's never ideal for any key player to play during the final preseason week. With Gus Johnson also released, they are only left with Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and Ward. ESPN's Vaughn McClure hinted at Patrick DiMarco possibly receiving some carries. That's not a good scenario either. DiMarco is one of the more valuable offensive players on the roster. It leaves the coaching staff in a conundrum. They will likely have to rely on Ward, who can use this opportunity to validate his place on the roster. Freshly re-signed Will Ratelle may also get some carries.
Wide receivers battle for the last spots
Devin Fuller's injury opens up a once-crowded battle. The seventh round pick was placed on injured reserve. That leaves Eric Weems, Nick Williams, and J.D. McKissic as the remaining wide receivers fighting for roster spots. Weems holds plenty of special teams value. He laid an emphatic hit during the opening kickoff against Miami. With Kyle Shanahan's offense rarely utilizing four wide-receiver sets, contributing on special teams is highly valued.
McKissic's explosiveness on kickoff and punt returns will be something to consider. Justin Hardy and Weems aren't decisive or fast enough to effectively return kicks. After getting minimal special teams production last season, Quinn knows an upgrade is needed. With Fuller out for the season, they should seriously consider McKissic. It will likely come down to McKissic and Williams. Although he is limited as a wide receiver, Williams knows Shanahan's offense. They used him more often than expected last season. This is one of the most unpredictable roster battles, where nothing would be surprising between these wide receivers.
Defensive linemen trying to find their niche
There are multiple highly touted college prospects that haven't lived up to expectations on the defensive line. Ra'Shede Hageman and Courtney Upshaw are trying to rejuvenate their careers. The 2014 second-round pick is constantly being questioned about playing up to his potential. Hageman's work ethic is improving, but fans aren't convinced about him as a long-term fit. With Grady Jarrett supplanting him as Quinn's centerpiece on the interior, Hageman is trying to contribute in other areas.
Upshaw has decided to put on a considerable amount of weight, as he looks massive on the inside. Instead of playing in his usual strong side linebacker and defensive end hybrid role, the former Alabama star is taking on a new challenge. It hasn't translated into any glowing differences yet. Upshaw's snaps have been limited during preseason. This should be an excellent opportunity to showcase his value in a new role. On a one-year prove it deal, Upshaw will need to contribute early to stick around.