Tonight’s all about the battles. While the Falcons won’t be out there grappling with themselves or deep existential questions, they will be playing the Jets with the intention of helping to sort out the battles they’ve thus far only seen in practice and in sporadic scrimmages. That means opportunity, and here are six positions where that opportunity is most critical. You’ll note that five of them are on offense.
Matt Schaub will get some run, but the real battle to watch here will be between Garrett Grayson and Kurt Benkert. Grayson’s a veteran journeyman who once was considered Drew Brees’ heir apparent as a third round pick back in 2015, but he spent last season as a member of the Falcons’ practice squad. Benkert is a promising if erratic undrafted free agent who figures to be a real candidate for the practice squad this year. Either one could be in play to be Matt Ryan’s backup in 2019 when Matt Schaub’s contract expires, so it’ll be worth watching how both fare in what promises to be extended action in the coming weeks.
The battle for a starting job we’ve been anticipating all year. Rookie Luke McNitt is up against veteran Ricky Ortiz, who is getting the starting nod against the Jets. Meaningful snaps can be hard to come by for fullbacks in preseason, but this is an opportunity for McNitt and Ortiz to showcase their skills in a game setting, and prove that at least one of them belongs and the Falcons don’t need to go dumpster diving at the position again.
There may be a quiet, unexpected battle going on between Marvin Hall and Justin Hardy for the fourth receiver gig. Hall is showing out this offseason, is very much in the mix at returner and has the kind of deep speed this offense could always use more of, while Hardy has shown himself to be a stellar blocker and sure-handed option, particularly in the red zone. Neither player is going to be a major part of the offense in 2018, but this is still something that bears watching, pecking-order-wise.
Then there’s a battle just to hang on. Rookie Russell Gage figures to be in the lead for that at the moment, but the Falcons have some legitimately intriguing young players with speed in the mix, and you shouldn’t count them out just yet. They’ll all get extended playing time tonight.
There are actually a number of battles here. The first pits Brandon Fusco against Wes Schweitzer, with both men likely to get a couple of series in this game to help prove they belong. Fusco is still the favorite to win the right guard job, but Schweitzer has put genuine pressure on him with his summer to this point.
Down the depth chart, you have Sean Harlow, Jamil Douglas and others battling for what’s likely to be one spot (if that) behind Fusco, Schweitzer, Andy Levitre and Ben Garland at the guard position. It would be an upset (not to mention a disappointment) if Harlow isn’t the favorite for that spot, given his draft status and promise, but he’s got a long road ahead of him just to make the roster.
Ty Sambrailo’s out, which means the tackle position is going to be manned by the likes of Austin Pasztor and Matt Gono for much of the night. Pasztor has a long (though not storied) history of playing the tackle position and even starting, and he’s still relatively young and athletic. Gono has real promise himself, but as an undrafted free agent fresh of out of college, he’ll really have to blow Dan Quinn’s socks off to make the team outright. He can still push hard for a spot on the practice squad, at minimum.
The Falcons are likely to park Grady Jarrett on the bench early in this one, and chances are good that veteran Jack Crawford will join him, given that he’s working his way back from a major injury. That’ll leave Terrell McClain, Deadrin Senat, and a cast of youngish reserves to battle it out, with potentially major implications.
Senat is trying to push for a nominal starting role next to Grady Jarrett, McClain is trying to do the same or at least secure an early down role as a run stuffer, and the likes of Garrison Smith are trying to push for what will probably be a fifth and final defensive tackle spot on the active roster. With only Jarrett truly guaranteed a major role this season, the competition should be fun and fierce, especially with the talent at the position.