Enough of the small talk.
It's time to finally strap the helmets, lace up the cleats, listen to your gametime playlist, and get ready for Falcons football. The entire offseason has been flooded with regretful memories of that game in February that I won't mention. Rightfully, the talk of the game will continue all year long. What the Falcons must do is simple: play.
That is exactly what they will do as they kick off their 2017 preseason on the road against the Miami Dolphins. So before the ball is kicked off the tee, here are five Falcons players that will need to be watched closely during the team's preseason opener.
LB Duke Riley
A somewhat surprising third round selection this year, Duke Riley was drafted to be the weak side answer next to former college teammate Deion Jones. The Dolphins opener gives the athletic linebacker a stage to see what he brings to the table. His 4.5 speed has been evident at practice and his strength has been on display thanks to a social media video of him hard at training.
Riley is currently listed as the backup weak side linebacker but that is definitely subject to change. His ability to diagnose plays, react accordingly, and showcase his athleticism should be closely watched. It is very likely that Riley is the starting weak side linebacker come week one on the road against the Chicago Bears. This preseason opener is where it all starts.
WR Justin Hardy
It has already been noted that the Falcons will be sitting out wide receivers Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel due to their respectable injury precautions. Which means in all likelihood, the starters at the position for the preseason opener will be Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy.
Sanu has been one of the better players in training camp so far and we already pretty much know what we are to see from the veteran. When it comes to Hardy however, this is a very important season for him. After posting 387 catches in four seasons at East Carolina from 2011 to 2014, Hardy has only 42 catches and four touchdowns in two seasons with the Falcons.
To be fair, Hardy has had to create elbow space within a crowded receiving group the past couple of seasons. The Falcons have also managed to put points on the scoreboard and scare opposing defenses without Hardy being a viable threat week in and out. With Hardy getting the start, it will be an opportunity to see if Hardy has made considerable progression in his game. It is debatable that he has the best hands on the team and his route running has improved, which was evident in training camp.
G Wes Schweitzer
The right guard battle has been noted to be sorted out over the course of training camp and preseason and it appears that there is no clear cut "winner" at the position.
Currently, the versatile Ben Garland is listed as the starter at the position but second-year guard Wes Schweitzer was the favorite to win the spot coming into training camp. While Schweitzer has not looked terrible at all, he has also yet to distinguish himself from Garland or fourth-round draft pick Sean Harlow. Schweitzer can change all that with solid play during the preseason and against the Dolphins, he may likely see a good trio at defensive tackle in Ndamukong Suh, Jordan Phillips, and rookie Davon Godchaux.
Schweitzer spent all of 2016 on the practice squad which means this will be a rare moment for him has he sees his first live action as a Falcon. If he wants to be ready, he must show signs of improvement.
CB Jalen Collins
Ah yes. Good ole Jalen.
Collins will miss the first 10 games of the regular season as a result of another suspension due to testing positive for PEDs. However, head coach Dan Quinn has stated that Collins will see time during the preseason which is also an positive indication that the team will explore the option to keep the 6'1 cornerback on the roster post-suspension.
Collins played in eight regular season games and started six of them during the second half of last season and ended with 31 tackles, two interceptions, and what appeared to be a massive chip on his shoulder. Now he must once again regain that chip as he must showcase to the Falcons coaching staff that he is worthy of being a prime player in their rotation at corner. Collins is still raw and needs more seasoning but against a sneaky good wide receiving corp in Miami, Collins will be tested.
DB Damontae Kazee
Kazee built a reputation at San Diego State with his thievery in terms of interceptions, posting 15 interceptions the last two seasons. So far in training camp, he has had two interceptions and has made a number of plays to impress the staff.
One point of emphasis for Kazee was his ability to handle the communication aspect of playing the free safety position. He will surely be tested to show that element against the Dolphins. A Miami offensive scheme that relies on pre-snap motion and the ability to create match-ups is something Kazee will see. He is expected to see time at both free safety and slot corner so his attention to detail will be critical. Whether or not Kazee gets turnovers will not be the main story here. It is the small intricacies that will be observed and whether or not Kazee can sharpen the smaller aspects of his game.
Wild Card: DE Takkarist McKinley
The decision on if the Falcons 2017 first rounder will see the field against Miami. He is still coming off offseason shoulder surgery and has been recently given the green light to practice gradually to get back into full swing. It has been encouraging by what we have seen this offseason from McKinley. If McKinley does play, it will be interesting to see how much contact he endures and dishes out. While it seems likely he will play considerably in week one against the Bears, it will be a great sign to see him get much needed action.