But I’ve been tasked with writing about only a handful, so I’ve carefully poured through the data and come up with the definitive list trying to name five Falcons that will have a significant impact on the results of this Week 1 game.
QB Marcus Mariota
Mariota will debut as the Falcons' starting quarterback on Sunday, marking the first time a passer not named Matt Ryan will open the season in 15 years. That by itself is intriguing enough, but when you couple it with Mariota probably needing to have an outstanding debut for the Falcons to win, it only magnifies the intrigue.
Mariota’s mobility and ability to extend plays is a skillset Ryan never possessed, and probably will be instrumental in the Falcons carrying the day behind a suspect offensive line.
WR Drake London
In the spirit of debuts, the Falcons' No. 1 selection from this past year’s draft is the next in line of intriguing players to watch. London played five snaps in his preseason debut against the Detroit Lions before suffering a knee injury. That injury still lingers but the majority of signs point to him suiting up on Sunday against the Saints.
London’s presence will be critical to the Falcons’ success due to his potential to generate explosive plays. His lone catch in the preseason was a 24-yarder with half the yardage gained after the catch, and he’ll need to showcase similar playmaking ability against the Saints.
RB Cordarrelle Patterson
Considering we’re discussing explosive plays and last year’s win, the Falcons’ most versatile offensive weapon in Patterson is the next name on the list. Patterson’s performance in the last year’s Week 9 win against the Saints last season was a huge part of their success. His big 64-yard catch set up the game-winning score as part of his impressive six-catch, 106-yard performance.
Patterson had quiet days running the football against the Saints, and the Falcons will preferably rely on rookie running back Tyler Allgeier to reverse that trend on Sunday. But Patterson’s versatility will be key in the passing game, as his ability to line up in a multiple places before the snap creates unique wrinkles for the Falcons' offense and gives defenses nightmares.
DT Anthony Rush
As I wrote earlier this week, the battle in the trenches will be critical to the team’s success. And it would be easy to rattle off a bunch of linemen on either side of the ball as intriguing players to watch. But perhaps the most intriguing is the team’s nose tackle in Rush.
Rush had an impressive debut last year against the Saints in that Week 9 game, with his size, physicality, and disruptive capabilities being instrumental in the team thwarting the Saints rushing attack by holding running back Alvin Kamara to just 50 rushing yards. In their second matchup, however, Kamara ripped his way to a season-high 146 yards and Rush did not have nearly as much impact then.
Without Rush once again being that force in the middle, the Falcons have little hope to slow down Kamara and the Saints' run game again. And if not, it may be impossible for them to pull off the upset win.
LB Mykal Walker
Speaking of Kamara, not only does he present challenges to the Falcons defense on the ground, but also via the air in the passing game. In the two matchups a year ago, there wasn’t a single player that drew the assignment of matching up with Kamara the vast majority of the times; rather, it was a platoon between multiple linebackers and safeties. But almost none of those players are returning this year, with Deion Jones going on injured reserve, Foye Oluokun signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency, and the team replacing others like Duron Harmon and Brandon Copeland. Only veteran safety Erik Harris returns, and he’ll likely be relegated to a reserve role on Sunday.
Once again, the Falcons will likely have a bevy of players match up with Kamara in both man and zone coverage on Sunday. But perhaps the most instrumental player will be Walker, who steps in not only for Jones as the team’s new starting weakside linebacker, but also for Oluokun, as the player tasked with wearing the “green dot” and calling the defense.
Walker has been impressive in coverage in his limited opportunities over the past two years, but Kamara is one of the premier pass-catching running backs in the NFL, and this is a test the former has yet to face fully in his career. Like so many other things already discussed, Walker’s success in keeping Kamara in check will play a large role in the Falcons gameplan on Sunday and be an “X-factor” for their success.
And should he and the rest of this group of five step up and pull it off, then the Falcons stand a very good chance of starting their 2022 season the right way with a win.
Do you agree with these intriguing players? Who are some other players that you think can impact Sunday’s results?