Comparing the Falcons teams of yesteryear to the Falcons’ current roster isn’t possible. This is a transformed unit filled with talent on both sides of the ball. Of course, since this is the first game of the preseason, the starters won’t get much playing time. The attention will be more focused towards potential contributors and players battling for roster spots. Here are the biggest things to watch for against Miami.
Right guard battle takes center stage
While almost every starter will only be on the field for one drive, a potential starter on the offensive line should receive far more playing time. Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer will be competing to replace Chris Chester at right guard. There haven’t been any indications on who has the upper hand. Although Garland is listed as the starter on the current depth chart, Schweitzer has received praise from media members during training camp. That makes a highly-contested battle even more intriguing.
Garland will have some opportunities to block Ndamukoung Suh. The fan favorite can only boost his stock against one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the league. How Garland transitions from being a backup center and situational nose tackle to potential full-time guard is one of the more fascinating stories heading into preseason. A career backup is on the verge of becoming a starter for one of the best teams in the league.
It won’t be easy beating out Schweitzer, who showed some promise last preseason. The 2016 sixth round pick shined as a run blocker against Cleveland. If he can fix his deficiencies in pass protection, a shift in the depth chart wouldn’t be surprising. Miami’s defensive line has overwhelmed them during the previous two preseason meetings. A decision won’t be made after one game, but neither player can afford to implode like James Stone did in 2015.
Following Jalen Collins’ ten game suspension, there will be more attention on the backup cornerbacks. The position remains stabilized with Desmond Trufant returning from a torn pectoral. To have quality cornerback depth is so valuable in today’s game, however.
If your defense is lacking in that department, it will eventually come back to haunt them. Look no further than Green Bay’s secondary in the NFC Championship. They were left hopeless against Julio Jones and company.
C.J. Goodwin continues to emerge as a top backup. The former wide receiver made crucial plays against Green Bay in their regular season matchup and New England. Quinn recently praised him for making considerable progress. Goodwin’s length and experience on special teams should bode well for his chances of locking up a roster spot.
Nobody knows if the Falcons will keep five or six cornerbacks on the roster. Damonate Kazee’s ability to play free safety and corner could influence the coaching staff’s decision. Deji Olatoye, Akeem King, and Blidi Wreh-Wilson are the most notable names competing for a roster spot. Each player should receive plenty of snaps to prove their worth.
Young tight ends
If you discount Levine Toilolo starting in 2014, the Falcons have relied on a veteran tight end over the past decade. The list features Alge Crumpler, Justin Peelle, Tony Gonzalez, and Jacob Tamme. That isn’t the case anymore, as all four tight ends are 26 years old or younger. Austin Hooper is expected to take a more featured role in his second season. Toilolo will be relied upon in two tight end sets, which was frequently used in Steve Sarkisian’s offense at Washington.
There haven’t been any suggestions about keeping four tight ends like last season. Most fans were surprised to see Joshua Perkins make the roster. Tamme’s season ending shoulder injury created an opportunity for him. His touchdown against Carolina showed his ability to win in traffic. Perkins’ spot will be challenged by fifth round rookie Eric Saubert.
It remains to be seen if both players will be battling for a roster spot. What can be decided is the third tight end spot. Perkins and Saubert will need to prove they are more than impressive athletes. Look for one of them to produce a big play at some point in this game.
Third running back spot is relevant
Terron Ward's perseverance as the Falcons’ third running back deserves acknowledgement. The former undrafted free agent doesn’t have any extraordinary qualities. From his work ethic to pass blocking ability, he has earned the coaching staff’s trust. Ward did show some improvement following an underwhelming rookie season. His jaw-dropping 26-yard run against Green Bay will never be forgotten.
Ward does face stiff competition for the first time in his NFL career. Drafting Brian Hill showed the Falcons’ commitment towards adding depth at running back. They want an alternative option to the dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Hill is the type of bruising back that could be useful on short-yardage situations. B.J. Daniels is another potential option, as ESPN’s Vaughn McClure predicted him to make the 53-man roster. The Falcons rarely kept three running backs on the active roster under Kyle Shanahan. That appears to have changed, as Sarkisian looks to find another capable backup.
Jermaine Grace’s time
The Falcons have a knack of finding undrafted free agent gems. Brian Poole was last season’s shrewd signing. He developed into a reliable nickel corner, which was viewed as one of the biggest concerns going into the season. Ryan Schraeder is another undrafted free agent signing that ended up being a major success. Grace won’t be presented with the same opportunities. He is going to be a contributor on special teams and backup linebacker at best. That doesn’t preclude his journey from being a compelling story.
Grace was dismissed from the University of Miami last season. For an undrafted free agent to not play football in 2016 and already earn reps with the first team defense speaks volumes of his overall ability. Quinn loves speedy linebackers that can cover, make plays sideline to sideline, and always play with urgency. Size isn’t a major factor for him when evaluating linebackers. That bodes well for Grace, who reportedly weighs around 223 pounds. There aren’t many personnel questions surrounding the front seven. With the defensive line completely settled, the only question left is who will be the top backups at linebacker. Grace may end up claiming the number one spot.