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How the Falcons can find clarity in the preseason to get ready for the regular season

From position battles on the interior line to young players needing reps to get acclimated, Arthur Smith’s team has plenty to figure out in the next month.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to what they faced in Arthur Smith’s first season as head coach, the Falcons are heading into the preseason with numerous questions. They have starting positions and key roles to be decided on both sides of the trenches, which is very similar to last year. An entirely new safety tandem will get their first action together. After losing multiple players and being severely limited on the outside last season, the wide receiver corps is filled with new young talent and a few veterans. There is also an exciting prospect that could earn his way into a featured role coming out of the backfield.

There is plenty to watch for in these upcoming three games. For all the excitement, the coaching staff must do their part in creating opportunities and intensifying the competition in the areas without definitive starters. With Marcus Mariota essentially going into the season as the starting quarterback, they have to assemble the best supporting cast around him. Dean Pees will have to live up to his recent fiery speech and do what he can to make sure his defense is running up to 100 percent.

Here are the five primary things the Falcons must figure out before they start their season against New Orleans.

Being decisive in naming starters at left guard and center

After not making any major additions at left guard in the offseason, it was expected that Jalen Mayfield would be the starter by default, albeit on a short leash following a dismal rookie season. That hasn’t been the case at all with the emergence of Elijah Wilkinson. The unheralded former tackle has played his way into the first team in training camp. Smith specifically stated the decision has more to do with what Wilkinson is doing right, rather than what Mayfield is doing wrong.

That could be coach speak. That could be legitimate reasoning. What we do know is that Wilkinson has lined up primarily with the starters. Right next to him, Drew Dalman has earned slightly more reps with the first team than who many thought was the incumbent starting center in Matt Hennessey. The open competition was necessary for both positions following last season’s disastrous performances. All the coaching staff can do is give them opportunities to prove themselves and make swift decisions on naming starters.

Smith can’t rotate offensive linemen following drives like he did at times in the latter part of 2021. It affects the chemistry of an already imbalanced unit, given their flaws at three of the five offensive line spots. Wilkinson has the experience, while Dalman came into the league with a considerable amount of buzz. If both players can open up running lanes and handle what comes at them in pass protection, they should be upgrades over Mayfield and Hennessey, and the coaching staff shouldn’t hesitate to name them as starters.

Properly aligning the young safety tandem

The safety position discussion has been relatively quiet across the Falcons’ camp. It’s difficult to determine if it’s because the safety position can’t be worse than it was last season or if there are simply so many other compelling story lines. Regardless, the state of the Falcons’ safeties is incredibly important. The young safety tandem of Jaylinn Hawkins and Richie Grant indicates the coaching staff is finally building towards the future after last year’s delay.

The current big question is how Hawkins and Grant will find their niche. Both players can hit violently and make plays downhill. Neither comes off as the player to cover 20-25 yards downfield as the deep-lying safety. That’s why it was a curious decision to have them start together. There has to be a method to Pees’ madness, especially after Hawkins played his way onto the field and proved to be the most productive safety on the team last season. The former fourth-round pick was one of the few young players to make significant strides. His ability to gel with Grant will be something to monitor throughout the preseason.

Grant has plenty to prove following an underwhelming first season. Not having to play nickel corner should be greatly beneficial in allowing him to focus on playing strong safety. It’s now a matter of processing the game better and being better technically in all phases of the game.

Both players should get significant playing time these next few weeks. On a defense filled with uncertainty, the safety position is the biggest one of them all, albeit still one with considerable promise.

Being proactive in addressing the defensive tackle rotation

It would be surprising if Abdullah Anderson were the last defensive tackle the Falcons signed before the season. Following Vincent Taylor’s season-ending injury, the Falcons have an already uncertain personnel group with even more concerns. It’s a group lacking in experience and talent outside of Grady Jarrett. Anthony Rush and Ta’Quon Graham showed glimpses of being solid run defenders last season. Expecting them to play significant snaps and become consistent rotational players is risky.

The same goes for Anderson, who has only played 165 regular season snaps since being drafted by the Bears in 2018. A rough showing against Dan Campbell’s feisty Lions, where they are getting pushed around and allowing massive running lanes, could prompt the front office to sign a capable veteran. Linval Joseph or Danny Shelton would immediately help provide some solidity on run downs.

It’s hard to be optimistic about such an untested unit without notable prospects, outside of possibly Marlon Davidson, who is better suited as an interior pass rusher. The Falcons can’t be hesitant to look for legitimate outside help, especially if things go quickly awry in the first preseason game.

Pinpointing the two wide receivers ready to be depended on the most behind Drake London

When trying to project the Falcons’ passing game, it must be taken into account that two of the three primary pass-catchers aren’t going to be strictly wide receivers. Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson will receive plenty of targets, along with Drake London. That makes determining the other two primary wide receivers all the more fascinating. They must offer something different to be effective complementary pieces.

Whether it’s another big physical presence like Bryan Edwards or a sharp route-runner like Damiere Byrd, the coaching staff will have to identify the best options in a suddenly crowded wide receiver room. The Falcoholic’s finest Kevin Knight wrote about Byrd making standout plays in training camp. Edwards has turned some heads with his big-play ability. Both players appear to be the best options on the outside, especially when London is used as a power slot inside, as The Athletic’s Robert Mays wrote about here.

Olamide Zaccheaus, Auden Tate, and KhaDarel Hodge are capable of staking their claim as well, with Zaccheaus getting a lot of first team work in camp thus far. The coaching staff will have to give them all their fair share of reps to determine which players could make a difference despite likely only being targeted four to six times a game.

Giving Tyler Allgeier as many opportunities as possible

Suppose the coaching staff is serious about having Allgeier be the 1B to Patterson being 1A in the running back rotation. In that case, they must give Allgeier as many reps as possible in the preseason. They have to see how he fares in a featured role, particularly in handling pass-blocking assignments and being a viable option on check downs. There is plenty of excitement surrounding the fifth-round pick out of BYU. The Falcoholic training camp reports have praised his vision and decisiveness, attributes a young running back needs to have at this level.

It will be fascinating to see how his downhill, power running style translates to the NFL. Will he be able to break tackles and gain yards after contact in an efficient manner? That’s the pressing question. There is still plenty to ponder when it comes to how he develops being an all-around back.

From speaking to him in May, I feel confident that he is primarily focused on being that player. The coaching staff needs to facilitate the process by giving him everything he can handle against the Lions and Jets.