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Intriguing players to watch in Falcons vs. Jaguars

Who wins the WLB role? Could the Falcons trust Matt Gono as their swing tackle? Is Jalston Fowler the real deal? We give you the top players to watch during Saturday’s preseason game against the Jaguars.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The third and most important preseason game has arrived, which means TNF against the Eagles is less than two weeks away! I’m pretty darn excited, but first we need to see how this Falcons’ team looks in the so-called “dress rehearsal” game. Quinn has said that we can expect to see the starters for “3-4 series”, which should give us a great look at both the offense and defense against playoff-caliber competition.

Jacksonville is obviously known for its defense, which was arguably the best in the NFL in 2017. They have incredible athletes at LB, a terrifying pass rush, and the best 1-2 CB duo in the league. Put simply, they’re stacked. The Jaguars only real weakness was the run, where they were merely average. This should be a perfect test for Atlanta’s young WRs, RBs, and TEs against one of the most talented and deep units that they will ever face.

On offense, the Jags are decidedly more mediocre. They have a strong running game with Leonard Fournette and an offensive line that run blocks well, but Jacksonville’s passing attack is a huge question mark. Blake Bortles—as much as I loved him when he was UCF’s QB—has had one good NFL season sandwiched between a lot of mediocrity. The weapons are also a little different, with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns both gone.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most interesting players to watch for the Falcons during Saturday’s game.

Duke Riley and Foye Oluokun

With Deion Jones once again being held out, the vast majority of LB snaps will go to young LBs Duke Riley and Foye Oluokun. The Falcons would desperately like one of these two players to win the WILL role in the base defense, and the competition is starting to heat up. Rookie Foye Oluokun was initially thought to be a longshot to beat out sophomore Duke Riley, but things have changed over the course of the preseason.

Riley looked abysmal against the Jets before stabilizing and looking serviceable against the Chiefs. Meanwhile, Oluokun impressed in the first preseason game and looked equally as good against Kansas City. This week’s match-up against the Jaguars could determine which of these two get the starting snaps in the base defense. Riley is still the favorite, but Oluokun is closer than you’d think.

Ty Sambrailo vs. Matt Gono vs. Austin Pasztor

The smattering of mediocrity that has been the Falcons’ swing tackle battle will hopefully heat up a little bit on Saturday. Matt Gono has quietly looked like the best option, beating out the veteran Pasztor for second-team snaps and generally making fewer mistakes than Sambrailo. Will Atlanta feel confident enough in his abilities to make him the swing tackle, however? That’s a bit more difficult to answer.

If Gono continues to look better than the other two—especially against the quality pass rush of the Jaguars—I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team keep him on the 53-man roster. If he falters, the team likely keeps Ty Sambrailo around as insurance. It’s possible both could make the roster if the Falcons keep 9 or 10 offensive linemen. This week’s performance will go a long way in determining if that strategy is worthwhile.

The Great FB Battle: Ricky Ortiz vs. Jalston Fowler

Ricky Ortiz had soundly outplayed Luke McNitt throughout the first two preseason games, but he now has veteran competition in ex-Titans and Seahawks FB Jalston Fowler. Fowler is a behemoth that is almost the size of a defensive end at 5’11, 261—and he’s a lot quicker than you might think for someone his size. He’s also got nearly three seasons of experience playing FB in the NFL—and looked pretty good doing it, I might add.

Ortiz has a serious battle up ahead with the more physically-gifted Fowler. The main things working in Ortiz’s favor are his time with the team, and the fact that Fowler dealt with a series of injuries in 2017. I know many fans are excited about the prospect of Fowler as a potential short-yardage specialist—I am too—but it’ll come down to his performance on the field as both blocker and a receiver, too. This should be one of the more interesting battles to follow throughout the final two weeks of the preseason.

The battle for WR6

We already knew that Julio Jones wasn’t going to play this week, but yesterday we learned that Marvin Hall is going to be held out with a minor injury as well. This should give the team opportunities to give some of the fringe WRs snaps with the first team. Preseason darlings Devin Gray, Reggie Davis, and Dontez Byrd—along with rookie Russell Gage—will likely get a handful of snaps each with Ryan and the starters, and what they do with those snaps could determine their fate.

I think it’s pretty likely that Russell Gage remains the WR6, barring some miraculous performance by one of the other UDFAs. Still, these guys are competing for a spot on the practice squad—a spot that could very easily lead to a spot on the 53-man roster in 2019 and beyond, with the potential for Justin Hardy and/or Mohamed Sanu leaving for salary cap reasons.

The pass rush

We haven’t seen a whole lot of production from the 1st team pass rush thus far, but they also haven’t had a ton of snaps. The Falcons will be counting on Takkarist McKinley, Vic Beasley, and Jack Crawford to get to the QB at an acceptable rate in 2018. We all know what to expect from Grady Jarrett, but the rest of the starting 4 are relative question marks. I see Takk having a breakout, double-digit sack season, and Vic Beasley also returning to the low teens in sacks. As far as Jack Crawford (or somebody else) being able to produce on the interior alongside Jarrett, I’m still not sure.

Meanwhile, there are battles playing out for the 5th EDGE/SLB role and the potential 5th DT role. J.T. Jones has been arguably outplayed by UDFA Anthony Winbush thus far, and that battle could take further shape on Saturday. Jon Cunningham has been the most impressive of the “other” DTs, but he has to contend with the athletic upside of Justin Zimmer and the veteran presence of Garrison Smith. Right now, I have the Falcons keeping only 9 defensive linemen, but one of those final DTs could play themselves onto the roster—Quinn has shown he’s unafraid of keeping 10 DL on the 53.

QB Kurt Benkert

Benkert endeared himself to all of us with an electric (if ultimately disappointing) Week 1 performance where he showed off all the positive aspects of his game. Against the Chiefs, we saw the other side of the coin: poor decision making, hit-or-miss accuracy, and issues with touch on throws. Benkert is a work in progress—it’s why he went undrafted—but his positives are worth developing.

How Benkert plays over the next two weeks will determine his fate with the Falcons. If he’s impressive—replicating Week 1 or surpassing it—the Falcons will almost certainly have to carry him on the 53-man roster or risk him being poached on waivers. If he instead has a slow end to the preseason, Atlanta will likely be able to sneak him on to the practice squad without much issue. It’s probably better for the team if he struggles, but I’ll never root against the kid. He’s one of the most interesting “roster construction” players to watch against Jacksonville.

Who are some players or position battles that you’ll be watching closely on Saturday? What are you looking to see from the Falcons when they take on the ferocious defense of the Jaguars?