Yesterday, Allen Strk covered five major factors for Atlanta’s success in 2022 and what we’ll need to see in preseason. Today’s article is going to zero in on what to look for tomorrow night when the Falcons play the Lions, from the lines to the rookies.
Ridder in action
I want to see how Marcus Mariota fares, obviously, but it’ll be in a small slice of action. There’s also the fact that Mariota is pretty clearly locked into the starting job, and the buzz around him means all I want is for the team to get him into the regular season healthy so we can see how he fares at the helm of the offense.
Mariota looks polished, accurate. Granted, these are only practices, not games, and he's going against his own team's defense. But it's easy to see why the Falcons believed he could function this season.— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzATL) August 10, 2022
For Desmond Ridder, though, this will be more meaningful. The rookie is Atlanta’s backup for now, but the team loves him and the hope both inside and outside the building has to be that he blossoms into a quality starter for the long haul. The question is when he’ll get his opportunity.
The answer to that question depends on two factors: How Mariota and the Falcons are faring by the time we near midseason, and how Ridder himself is progressing. Ideally, he’d show some flashes in this lengthy preseason effort against Detroit, giving him a performance to build on as he looks to make starts for the Falcons in 2022 and prove he belongs in 2023 and beyond. Given that he’s looked solid but clearly has a ways to go to seriously challenge Mariota, every preseason rep should help.
Resolution for the center battle
As Allen wrote, the team needs to make a sharp decision in terms of who will start at center and resist the temptation to rotate during the season, given the potential for confusion and struggles inherit in that. The center battle won’t be settled by tomorrow night’s action, but chances are we’ll see a couple of things that will help us determine who is going to start in Week 1.
The first may be how playing time is divvied up. Chances are good the Falcons will try to start Matt Hennessy one game and Drew Dalman the next, but it’s possible that the player drawing the first start will prove to be in the driver’s seat.
The second is just how the duo performs, especially whoever draws those first team reps against a quality Detroit Lions defensive front. It’s in Atlanta’s best interest to give both players a real shot at the starting job, but chances are you’ll start to see some separation in this battle as early as Friday night.
Beyond center, there’s plenty to watch on both lines. Last year, Atlanta’s inability to work effectively in either pass protection or run blocking for long stretches doomed both the ground game and the passing attack, and the line is largely the same cast of characters in 2022. The one new addition who is lining up to start, Elijah Wilkinson, needs reps at his new position and will likely log some additional time at left guard in this one. I’ll want to see how he looks and how a resurgent Kaleb McGary fares, but it’s also going to be interesting to see how much Jalen Mayfield we get, whether Germain Ifedi can make a case for himself in game action, and so forth. This line needs better from its starters, but the depth is also going to be critically important.
Ditto a very unsettled defensive line. Grady Jarrett will likely only get a series or two, but the Falcons will and should give plenty of time to Ta’Quon Graham, Anthony Rush, Jalen Dalton, Darrion Daniels, Derrick Tangelo, and others competing for roles this season.
In both cases, Atlanta seems likely to claim waived players after the cutdown to 53 and/or add free agents to the lines unless the current competitors are truly impressive in the coming weeks. Friday night would be a great time for all of these players to shine.
Speaking of shining...
Will the rookies shine?
Drake London is not really a fifth-string wide receiver, and Tyler Allgeier is not the last running back on the depth chart. We know that, and we know that they’ll get real playing time against Detroit, along with rookies who are down the depth chart like Justin Shaffer and John FitzPatrick.
The question is how they’ll look with work against backups, where they should get plenty of snaps to prove their worth. Allgeier is going to come in the game before the final seconds of the fourth quarter, which is where his depth chart placement would imply he’ll get time, and will likely get his chances behind the second-team offensive line. Ebiketie and Malone, meanwhile, will find chances to go after Tim Boyle and David Blough and avenge Atlanta’s forgettable pass rushing performance against Detroit a year ago.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Atlanta’s fortunes in 2022 are going to turn in large part on how quickly key players like London, Allgeier, and pass rushers Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone fare in their initial campaigns. If those players can be great, the offense and defense should be markedly improved, putting this team on a path to be more competitive on Sundays. We’ll be looking for early glimmers of that against the Lions.