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Intriguing players to watch in Falcons vs. Saints

Five to keep your eyes on in New Orleans.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints features the debut of the most intriguing player we’ve named to date.

Of course, it’s not only about Desmond Ridder’s first start, as the Football Gods decree that five Falcons must be named each week. No more, no less. Let’s get to it!

Desmond Ridder

All eyes will of course be on the Falcons rookie quarterback making his debut. Ridder has a chance to begin a potent legacy in Atlanta with a win against a hated rival. The last time a Falcons rookie passer made his starting debut against the Saints was Matt Schaub all the way back in 2004 in a Week 15 road match that resulted in a 26-13 loss. Schaub, also originally a third-round pick, was sacked for a safety and threw two fourth-quarter interceptions in that game.

However, Schaub entered that lineup under very different circumstances. He was filling in for an injured starter Michael Vick in the midst of an impressive season that saw the Falcons make it all the way to the NFC Championship Game in their first year under then head coach Jim L. Mora. Ridder will just be hoping to spark a Falcons team that has recently hit the skids and is expected to be an upgrade over demoted starter Marcus Mariota, something that nobody ever dreamt of with Schaub and Vick.

There are plenty of expectations and hopes that Ridder’s debut will be far more impressive than Schaub’s was. But you can’t expect the rookie to have to carry the entire burden, and he’ll need help from key playmakers elsewhere on the roster.

Drake London

Hopefully benefiting from such an impressive premiere from the team’s quarterback will be his primary receiving target, which should be none other than fellow rookie Drake London. London hopes to get a boost from Ridder’s presence due to their strong rapport dating back to the days when they were roommates back during May’s rookie minicamp.

If so, it should be a massive upgrade over what we’ve seen in recent weeks with the connection between London and Mariota. Things started strong this year, with London producing 16 catches, 214 yards, and catching 64 percent of the passes thrown his way in the first three weeks combined. But over the last three games, those numbers have declined to 9 receptions, 126 yards, and a catch rate of 47 percent. That final figure best illustrates how much the rapport between the receiver and quarterback has deteriorated over the course of the season, which is the opposite of expectations.

So if London and Ridder can get on the same page quickly, those numbers should rebound to their September levels, increasing the Falcons’ chances at winning on Sunday.

Elijah Wilkinson

Ridder should also get help from improved blocking giving him more time to connect with London after the snap. Starting left guard Elijah Wilkinson is expected to be activated to the roster off injured reserve before Sunday’s game. He last played in Week 8, a win that resulted in the Falcons taking the lead in the NFC South. Since then, they’ve fallen to third place. That doesn’t mean that Wilkinson is the secret catalyst behind the team’s earlier success this year, but he should hopefully stop the revolving door of three different starters that have filled in the five weeks since.

A stable offensive line is generally considered a good offensive line, which certainly will help keep their rookie quarterback more upfront in his debut.

Arnold Ebiketie

Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was dominant in the Falcons’ Week 1 loss to the Saints, with Arnold Ebiketie also having an impressive debut by earning his first career sack. However, Jarrett hasn’t been nearly as effective in recent weeks. Even if he has a repeat performance of his impressive season-opener, the stark reality that has been proven repeatedly this season is that he needs more help up front.

Ebiketie is best equipped to provide that aid and has shown steady improvement over the course of the season. But after missing Week 13 with a forearm injury, it’s time for Ebiketie to relieve Jarrett’s burden and put together his own dominant performance.

A.J. Terrell

Unlike the boys up front, Week 1’s Saints matchup was not a great day for cornerback A.J. Terrell. He gave up a couple of touchdowns to Saints receiver Michael Thomas late that helped spark their comeback. But with Thomas out for the season, Terrell should get a more favorable matchup against rookie Chris Olave. Historically, Terrell has fared better against faster, quicker wideouts like Olave than the bigger, more physical ones like Thomas.

Not to mention, most of Terrell’s early-season struggles this year came in the red zone, an area where the Saints have yet to capitalize on with Olave’s strengths. Terrell doesn’t need to shut down Olave, but if he can keep him contained, the lack of Saints offensive firepower elsewhere should keep things more manageable for a Ridder-led Falcons offense.

Can you name other intriguing Falcon players you’ll be watching this Sunday other than those mention?