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Falcons vs. Jets: Biggest headlines for the first preseason game

The roster spot battle at wide receiver and cornerback should be compelling, along with the possible emergence of a second-year tight end.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The fourth season of the Dan Quinn experience is officially here. As the Falcons prepare for another season of trying to fulfill high expectations, they will first need to figure out which players will be on their opening day roster.

That leads to some big questions. Which players currently entrenched in a training camp battle are going to solidify their place in the starting lineup? Which players could play themselves into a bigger role than most anticipated? Those are questions that will be answered within the next month.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence that usually comes out of the first game. The first-string unit will make a short cameo appearance. Although the second-string group will play a few more drives, the majority of the second half will feature players battling for roster spots. That makes certain positions more fascinating than others going into tonight’s game. How every late-round pick and undrafted free agent fares against the Jets will play a significant role in deciding their future.

Wide Receiver Battle

With four wide receiver spots guaranteed, there isn’t much room for error in this competition. Each receiver will need to show something from a receiver, special teams, and potentially returner standpoint. Some familiar names are back to stake their claim. Some newcomers have generated buzz from training camp so far. How Marvin Hall and Reggie Davis elevate their game should be fascinating to watch. Both receivers made a few standout plays last preseason. Hall has been touted as a big-play threat. Despite turning a well-thrown ball from Matt Ryan to an interception against New Orleans last Christmas Eve, the coaching staff remains high on him.

Davis doesn’t have the same accolades, yet he continues to make plays. Dontez Byrd has arguably generated the most attention out of all the young receivers not named Calvin Ridley. Expect him to receive extended reps in the second half. Sixth-round draft pick Russell Gage is the type of gadget receiver that can work his way into the fray. A versatile playmaker with jaw-dropping speed should figure into Steve Sarkisian’s preseason plans. There are plenty of intriguing names that will be competing for this likely one spot. Nothing is concrete, as another receiver could very well win another jam-packed competition.

Returner Puzzle

Following Andre Roberts’ lackluster season, the coaching staff decided to look for a new returner. They didn’t go down the same route and sign a “return specialist.” After evaluating all the speed and talent at wide receiver, a young untested player will handle those duties.

Ridley has gained some traction as a returner during training camp. Considering his integral role in the offense, it seems unlikely that he will be the starter returner. Justin Hardy has some experience, but lacks the breakaway speed and elusiveness that you would like from a returner.

That makes it a complete tossup on who will return kicks. Quinn prefers to use the same player for kickoffs and punt returns. That’s how Devin Hester, Eric Weems, and Roberts were utilized. At least four players should have an opportunity to return kicks against the Jets. Gage’s background at LSU makes him a suitable candidate. There is no denying his playmaking abilities, but whoever emerges in the first game will get a real leg up early.

Cornerback Conundrum

Drafting Isaiah Oliver raised two questions. The long-term question involves Brian Poole’s status as the nickel corner. Could Oliver replace Poole and push Alford into the slot on passing downs? They attempted to do that in 2015 with Jalen Collins. The experiment only lasted a few games, as Collins showed that he wasn’t NFL-ready during his rookie season. The front office decided to take another long-armed, physical cornerback in the second round three years later.

While Oliver has plenty to prove, he probably won’t receive too many reps in his first game. That leads to the current question surrounding the cornerback group. Who will claim the other roster spot? Justin Bethel provides plenty of special teams value. That could easily guarantee him a roster spot, but there is a possibility of keeping sixth cornerbacks. Blidi Wreh-Wilson was used in dime packages during the Falcons’ playoff push. Quinn may opt to keep both veterans on the roster. Regardless of their credentials, both veteran cornerbacks will need to prove they can cover to justify their roster spot.

Eric Saubert

Quinn recently praised the second-year tight end for having a strong camp. After mostly playing special teams last season, Saubert is expected to be slightly more involved in the offense. He was considered as a potential late-round steal by several draft analysts. His ability to accelerate and create separation helped him become one of the most productive tight ends in college football. For all his shortcomings in blocking and overall concentration, it’s hard not to be excited by his sheer raw potential.

Saubert will have plenty of opportunities to prove his worth this month. Although he won’t supplant Austin Hooper or Logan Paulsen, a strong all-around summer will give Sarkisian more confidence in using three tight end sets. Saubert looked lost at times last preseason. Defenders were blowing him up in one-on-one situations. He committed several unnecessary penalties in limited action. A year of maturation should only benefit him heading into the first game of his second season. With the coaching staff seemingly behind him, the promising tight end has all the tools to be productive.