Left guard was always going to be a question mark for this team heading into the season. They drafted two players who might be options there, added free agent Josh Andrews and just picked up former Brown Colby Gossett, but none of the starting options were proven high-end starters at the position.
We’re already on the team’s second option, unless they were planning to sneak rookie Jalen Mayfield into the starting lineup after treating him like a reserve throughout preseason. Andrews is on injured reserve and will be out at least three weeks, which means Mayfield is going to be thrust into a starting role he may or may not be ready for. He’ll either sink or swim, and if he swims, he could have this job for a long while yet.
This week is dominated by questions, given how little we actually know about this football team right now. None are bigger than how Mayfield will fare, because Mayfield’s fortunes will impact fellow new starter Matt Hennessy at center and the offense more broadly against a talented defense. We haven’t seen enough of Hennessy to feel confident he’s going to consistently win his matchups, but he’s already gotten some starting experience with Alex Mack out late in the year in 2020 and is a player the team is clearly comfortable with.
Mayfield, meanwhile, has had an up-and-down summer where he showed flashes of his power and athleticism along with some stretches where was pushed around a bit. This week he won’t be facing reserves but the likes of Fletcher Cox and the Eagles front, which is a talented group with a long track record of feasting on shaky interior linemen. Arthur Smith is absolutely right that everyone’s going to be thrown into the fire at some point, and when he was drafted Mayfield seemed like a strong contender for the left guard job. To prove he belongs, he’ll have to spend the next few weeks growing on the job, hopefully with a fine start against the Eagles kicking things off.
The stakes are clear here: If Mayfield and Hennessy are at least solid, the Falcons should be able to get something going against a good-but-not-elite Eagles secondary missing starting safety Rodney MacLeod, as well as get Mike Davis and company enough room to work on the ground. If they’re continually getting beat as the game goes on, it will limit what the Falcons can do offensively, and the Eagles offense isn’t so limp that that’s likely to be a survivable problem.
Mayfield probably won’t be spectacular—it would be out of step with what we’ve seen from him so far, it’s his first career start, and the matchup is tricky—but if he can hold his own it will help this offense tremendously. The big question is simply whether he’ll be good enough to help enable this offense to put on a show in their home opener, and the answer will go a long way toward determining whether the Falcons win this game and whether Mayfield holds on to the left guard job once Andrews is healthy.