The Atlanta Falcons had a night to forget against the Jets in their first preseason game of 2018, but that doesn’t mean everything that happened during those four quarters was forgettable. In no particular order, here are three players who should be celebrated after Friday night, and three worth watching because of their shaky starts.
S Damontae Kazee
Kazee heads into the 2018 season as no better than the third safety and the sixth cornerback, so he’s not exactly destined for a ton of playing time. He still managed to make an effective case for just that on Friday.
Kazee finished the game with 11 tackles, including textbook takedowns of a few Jets, a tackle-that-wasn’t where he absolutely tripped up Trenton Cannon, and enough physicality, speed and quality instincts that you couldn’t help but be impressed. Kazee’s going to have to fight for every snap this season, but for one night, he did everything he could to make his case.
QB Kurt Benkert
The numbers are pedestrian and the passing inconsistent, but Benkert showed something we haven’t seen for a long time in a Falcons backup quarterback: Actual talent.
Benkert ran effectively, threw on the run in impressive fashion, and uncorked a couple of legitimately pretty deeper throws. He has a live arm and good instincts, and while his short passing and pocket presence need work, I finally got to see the talent everyone’s been hyping since the team signed him as a UDFA out of Virginia. If he can someday put it all together, he’s going to be a high-end backup in the NFL, and Atlanta’s in need of one of those.
Garrett Grayson wasn’t awful and I doubt the Falcons consider this battle settled just yet, but I thought Benkert made a strong enough impression to gain the inside track to a practice squad spot. He could very well be this team’s backup in 2019, though I know it’s far too early to say so.
WR Devin Gray
Honorable mention to linebacker Jon Celestin, who had two sacks (one erased by penalty), but Gray was a legitimate standout. He finished his day with four receptions for 83 yards and poor throws prevented him from getting even more. That might not be worth more than a footnote, but Gray has also fared well in camp, and all these catches showed a certain veteran-level savviness and speed that could get him onto the practice squad if he can keep it up. He seemed especially comfortable with Benkert.
LB Duke Riley
Riley was a third round pick just a year ago, and in different circumstances, that might give him some job security. As it is, he has to worry about rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun and a coaching staff that suggested earlier this offseason that he’s on a short leash.
What’s frustrating to me is that Riley very clearly has the speed and athleticism, at minimum, to be an interesting player. He just hasn’t been able to use it effectively, and this game saw him struggle to finish tackles and avoid staring into the backfield, issues that plagued him throughout his rookie season. With Oluokun looking good, I’m not sure it’s an exaggeration to say that Riley needs to show a lot more before the season, or he might be ceding some snaps to the rookie.
T Austin Pasztor
Pasztor was given a golden opportunity in this one, as he got the chance to play a lot of snaps with Ty Sambrailo out. He did not take advantage.
Multiple times during this game, we saw Jets claw their way past Pasztor with disconcerting ease, which suggests that his sluggish practices a year ago weren’t just due to injury. With at least semi-promising UDFA Matt Gono lurking and Sambrailo returning from injury relatively soon, Pasztor can’t afford another preseason game like this one.
I was hoping to gain some clarity into the returner battles in this game, but I got nothing. The Falcons either had to take fair catches or try to battle through poor coverage units, and I’m not sure we gained any real insight into what’s going on with the likes of Isaiah Oliver, Ito Smith, Marvin Hall, and so on. Hopefully that will change next game.
Who were your standouts and struggling players?