There is, mercifully, only a single preseason game remaining. That means one final opportunity for your roster hopefuls and even locked in guys to make their cases for regular season roles, which means it’s likely to be sloppy but maybe actually kind of interesting!
The four players below are a mix of strong roster bets (Matt Gono, Duke Riley), roster hopefuls (Olamide Zaccheaus), and guys hanging on to their roster lives by a thread (Giorgio Tavecchio). Here’s why all four deserve longer looks this coming Thursday night.
WR Olamide Zaccheaus
At this point, the Falcons appear to have no real interest in giving Marcus Green a shot to contribute on offense in his first year, and it looks like Kenjon Barner is going to hold down at least one of the returner gigs barring something amazing in the final preseason game. That means that Green, an interesting player by virtue of his speed and versatility, may well be ticketed for a practice squad spot in his first season. Disappointing, but hardly unheard of for a sixth rounder.
That’s why Zaccheaus needs the longer look. In a preseason where the team’s many undrafted and second year receiving options have failed to seize a potential sixth receiver role, Zaccheaus has pretty consistently been one of the more impressive options. He’s lightning fast, he’s shown an ability to get open, and he’s still got some special teams value even if he’s not a returner, as he displayed in his borderline heroic tackle on Qadree Ollison’s fumble to save a touchdown. With some extended burn on offense and special teams, the Falcons can decide whether Zaccheaus is worth having around to develop or whether he’s the latest in a long line of Bernard Reedys and J.D. McKissics.
T Matt Gono
Gono wasn’t perfect, but he looked strong and capable throughout most of his playing time against Washington, the second straight week where he’s looked like a capable tackle.
That matters given the situation at right tackle. Kaleb McGary is probably a stretch to return Week 1, and with Ty Sambrailo also banged up with a shoulder ailment and not looking great in his preseason snaps, Gono may legitimately have to play the position at some point early in the regular season. His development has been fun to watch, and he’s gone from an undrafted free agent to a guy you would feel somewhat comfortable with as a spot starter. That’s astonishing progress.
Alternatively, of course, if they’re planning to start him against the Vikings they ought to put him in mothballs right now.
LB Duke Riley
Believe it or not, Riley is still just 25 years old. There’s a long list of defenders (and hell, players of all stripes) who started to put things together in their third seasons, and while Riley was pretty bad in 2017 and 2018, he looked very good in his game action against Washington on Thursday night.
The usual preseason caveats apply, but there was simply a night-and-day difference between the tentative Duke Riley of yesteryear and the confident, physical version we saw last night. Riley was especially effective against the run, and that plus special teams value alone should be enough to get him on this team.
Riley deserves another game to cement that impression and cement a roster spot for these Falcons, who suddenly have the makings of an extremely young, extremely athletic group of linebackers.
K Giorgio Tavecchio
He’s not “young,” per se, but given that the Falcons have already merrily lost every other preseason game, they ought to be doing everything in their power to give Tavecchio multiple chances to kick for his job.
With their bungling backup quarterback situation—expect a lot of Matt Simms and Danny Etling, with all the terror that entails—chances are good they’re going to stall short of the end zone a few times against Jacksonville’s game young defense. I’m hopeful that’ll give Tavecchio at least three shots to make field goals, and if he nails all three I hope it will set some minds at ease. If he misses, well, I think it’s safe to assume the Falcons will have already called some potential options to bring in as Week 1 replacements. But it’s worth finding out if he’s got irreversible yips or not, and this last preseason game is the last consequence-free opportunity to nail that down.