In no particular order of importance, here are the battles to monitor tonight, and where they stand at the moment.
Once again, Kurt Benkert and Garrett Grayson will be competing for no more than a practice squad spot, unless Atlanta gets so hot on one of them that they keep a third quarterback on the active roster.
Benkert gained an early leg up with a strong performance a week ago against the Jets, where despite some pedestrian numbers he flashed a strong arm and quality mobility. Grayson will likely have to impress this week to have any chance of holding off the rookie, and I genuinely do not like his odds.
Ricky Ortiz, who was signed earlier this offseason after being dumped by the Ravens, has become the frontrunner for the job. What started as a three man battle might soon be down to just Ortiz, who blocked well and chipped in on special teams at a high level against the Jets, and probably just needs to repeat that performance and see Luke McNitt not match it to be in the driver’s seat for the job.
That said, though, McNitt can still make this interesting. He was a punishing blocker at Nebraska and can at least prolong the battle if he plays well tonight.
I think this position is more settled than it seems, given the number of competitors. Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall and Russell Gage are the favorites to be the last three men on the roster, and all three have had decent-to-good summers. Hardy’s blocking should keep him around even if he stays relatively quiet in these preseason games, while Hall and Gage have special teams value.
The bigger battle is probably happening at the practice squad level, where the Falcons could keep a couple of promising young players around. Last year’s summer darling Reggie Davis, promising rookie Dontez Byrd, and star of the Jets game Devin Gray are all in the running for those spots.
I’ve said before that Brandon Fusco remains the favorite to win this job, and he should be the first man up at the position tonight. Another strong performance from Fusco and any hint of faltering from Schweitzer might settle the thing, since I suspect the Falcons want to see the veteran free agent signing win.
Give credit where it’s due, though: Schweitzer hasn’t gone away, and he’s obviously put in the effort to improve and try to take on more of a leadership role on the offensive line. It’ll be nice to have him in Atlanta, even if he doesn’t win.
Again, this is less a battle for a starting job than it is a battle for pecking order, and gaining insight into who is going to play what percentage of snaps at this point is no easy feat. Deadrin Senat was legitimately impressive in his first preseason game, but Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford are steady veterans with particular strengths, and we’ll probably need to see how the team rotates them in the first game of the season to get any real sense of how this is going to shake out.
That said, there’s still going to be another defensive tackle on this roster, and that’s a battle worth watching. Garrison Smith is the most veteran option and still my favorite for the role, but nobody really distinguished themselves in the Jets game, and this is a fresh opportunity to do just that.
I’ll be honest, I thought Isaiah Oliver would be a bit of a slam dunk to win the job as the team’s de facto third cornerback, with Desmond Trufant or Robert Alford kicking inside when he was on the field.
Oliver was fine against the Jets, but it was noteworthy that Damontae Kazee got some time at cornerback, and of course Brian Poole is not simply going to go away. Oliver should still walk into plenty of playing time, but it must be said that if Kazee and Poole continue to play well and push for snaps, he may not be in line for the huge role I had assumed he would be.
What other battles will you be watching?