Thursday's preseason opener against the Bengals will be important to a lot of younger players on Atlanta's roster, but it may be most important to a player like Lamar Holmes, especially in light of recent developments at training camp.
On Tuesday, the projected starter at right tackle, Mike Johnson, went down with an injury and missed the rest of practice. Later that evening, head coach Mike Smith announced that Johnson's leg injury would require surgery and that means Holmes is the next man up.
Holmes had his own injuries last year that caused him to miss time. An offseason injury kept him out of OTAs and some of training camp. He got only one game of experience last season, but this year he was expected to compete with Johnson for that starting spot on the right side of the line.
The injury last season hindered Holmes' growth as a rookie, but when he looks back on it, he sees it as a positive in addition to the curse of injury and missed time.
"I would say the injury was probably a blessing and a curse at the same time," Holmes said Monday. "By not playing last year I got to sit back and really see what this game is about and really see the differences between college and the pros."
Holmes anticipates this Thursday's game unlike any other in his life. He said he's more excited to play than he's ever been, especially since he didn't get that much time last year, even in the preseason. Smith said on Tuesday that the offensive line is shaping up, but right tackle is still a spot with competition as they try to find the most versatile nine offensive linemen to use this season.
While there's no public timetable for how long starters will play, Smith said they plan to get their young players a lot of time so they can continue to evaluate them, and Holmes figures to be among those players.
"It's a big test for all of our young guys," Smith said of the first preseason game. "First-time starters, first-time guys that will get a lot of significant playing time, it will be fun to watch them go out and compete."
Holmes, who lost some weight in the offseason, is completely healthy and feels good about what he's doing on the field. When Johnson left the field on Tuesday, Holmes' first-team reps increased, something he was ready for because he's seen some of those reps more recently. He thinks the increase in time is because he's been showing the coaches he's worth a longer look.
"(The practice reps) are a process of earning it," Holmes said. "It's possibly a mix of earning it and seeing how I can handle it. To see if I can get in there and do what I'm supposed to do to handle my own."
He sees himself as a player that continues to get better every day and like most of his teammates, he's trying to get better each day. When he looks at the rookie version of himself from a full year ago, he sees a player he doesn't recognize anymore.
"I'm a much different player," Holmes said. "I actually know the game a little bit better and know the ins and outs of the game now."
The depth behind Holmes is inexperienced, making the preseason suddenly even more important for an answer at right tackle. College free agent Alec Savoie is listed as the backup to Lamar Holmes on the depth chart. Ryan Schraeder and Terren Jones are two more tackles that could step into the picture. Although they're all rookies of the free-agent variety, but Smith said they're players they're interested in learning more about.
"There are a number of young free agent offensive linemen that have good size and good footwork and good athleticism," Smith said. "We're excited about them; we've been excited about those guys from Day 1, especially with how big they are."
Savoie, Schraeder and Jones are all 6-foot-7 and weigh over 300 pounds and Schraeder was seen getting some first-team reps at right tackle on Tuesday after Johnson's injury.