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Arthur Smith expresses confidence in Jalen Mayfield ahead of potential first start

The rookie could start at left guard in the season opener and faces a tough matchup.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Despite much hand-wringing and debate about the Falcons’ left guard position this preseason, the competition seems essentially decided by a technicality.

It was reported the Wednesday after roster cuts that left guard Josh Andrews, the expected starter, was being placed on injured reserve due to a broken hand. None of the challengers in the left guard competition appeared to have done enough to take the No. 1 spot, but this injury requires someone to be the proverbial next man up.

As of now, it would appear that person is rookie Jalen Mayfield, who the Falcons selected in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The NFL is all about overcoming adversity, and both the Falcons and Mayfield will have to do that right out of the gate. If coach Arthur Smith has his reservations, he’s not showing them publicly.

“I’ve got a lot [of] faith in Jalen (Mayfield),” Smith said during his Monday press conference, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Now, without more of the quote, that shouldn’t necessarily be taken as confirmation that Mayfield will be in the starting lineup come 1 p.m. ET on Sunday when the Falcons face the Eagles. And yet, all signs point to Mayfield being the logical candidate to be called upon.

For better or worse, Mayfield has received a lot of attention for a rookie this preseason. He was initially working with the first-team unit at right tackle due to Kaleb McGary’s early absence and Matt Gono’s unavailability. Mayfield struggled in the first preseason game, however, and was moved back inside quickly after McGary’s return to camp. From then, Mayfield worked in a rotation with Andrews and fellow rookie Drew Dalman.

Multi-positional training has become part-and-parcel for offensive linemen in the NFL. Injuries happen too frequently, and it’s easier to teach a good reserve player multiple positions than find multiple good reserve players. In that sense, Atlanta isn’t too different, but Smith believes it will help them deal with setbacks like this one.

“This is life in the NFL,” Smith said in his press conference last Thursday. “It’s why we mixed and matched, and some of it was out of necessity with Kaleb (McGary) starting camp on PUP and getting guys in here and cross-training guys and it’s unfortunate what happened to Josh (Andrews). Josh has had a good camp, and we still think he’ll come back and contribute this season, but now it’s an opportunity and here we go. Jalen, you know, he needs to be ready to go.”

If there is a reason for optimism, it’s this: Mayfield improved in each of his preseason appearances, and he earned a 72.5 grade from PFF in his final preseason game, which ranked among the team’s best marks. If there is a reason for concern, it’s that he could see a lot of Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

Cox remains one of the toughest interior assignments, even if he had a dropoff season last year. While it should again be noted that there is no guarantee that Mayfield will be the starter as of now, if he is called upon the Falcons will likely do all they can to protect him and give him help.

For Atlanta to really make something of this season, its young players are going to have to make an impact sooner rather than later. We always expected to see a good dose of the Falcons’ first two draft picks, but now the team’s first three rookies selected could be Day 1 starters. Here we go.

“At some point, you’ve got to get baptized, and every week, there’s somebody,” Smith said Thursday. “That’s the NFL. ... There’s going to be somebody every week and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”