The Falcons first preseason game is upon us, and with it comes a great many questions regarding playing time and player evaluations. The team leaves for Detroit this afternoon, and don't worry: I'll be there, too. (Not that I think you're overtly worried about my presence in Detroit but still).
Here are the top five things I'll be watching when the Falcons kickoff against the Lions on Friday night.
- Why Dean Pees' speech on defensive culture shift matters
- From Montana to Atlanta, Troy Andersen continues to reach new heights
- 'The will to get it done': How Arnold Ebiketie found his way to football, then to the NFL
- Positional breakdowns: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Receivers/Tight ends, O-line; D-line; ILBs, EDGE; Secondary
- Training camp storylines: Line of scrimmage; Edge rush, Quarterbacks
1. The Marcus Mariota/Desmond Ridder rep count
Asked how many snaps he feels like he needs to feel comfortable, Mariota gave the company line: However much or however little Arthur Smith wants him to play. Does this mean we'll see Mariota for a half, and Ridder for a half? Perhaps. Will they rotate every quarterback? They could. Regardless, though, I feel confident in saying we will see both quite a bit.
This isn't the same situation as last year. Arthur Smith didn't need to see Matt Ryan in the preseason. Everyone already knew what Ryan could do. There was no need to see him at all. This is not the case for Mariota and Ridder. The Falcons need to see them both, in my opinion, in order to get a gauge on where they feel the position is before the season starts. The Falcons also chose not to carry a true "camp arm" at quarterback. You know: The quarterback an organization signs just to limit the practice reps their starter and backup have to take in camp, save their arm, etc. The Falcons don't have a camp arm because no, I do not truly consider Feleipe Franks a camp arm. His role elsewhere has expanded.
2. Feleipe Franks, QB or TE?
Speaking of Franks, in my mind he has cemented himself as a tight end on this 90-man roster. Sure he sparingly participates in some 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills at quarterback, but we're not talking significant reps there at all. Franks will go from lining up at tight end to two plays later going under center, but it doesn't happen often enough for me to think he's still a true quarterback on this roster. Smith was asked earlier this week how much he planned on using Franks at quarterback vs. tight end come Friday's game. He said that it'll depend on how the game goes, but "if you want to hedge your bet, it won't be 50/50." Reading between the lines, I wouldn't be surprised if Franks plays 80 percent of his snaps at tight end.
Yeah. I'll go 80/20 for Franks if nothing extreme happens to Mariota or Ridder.
3. The most intense position battle on the team
If you didn't immediately think of the center position I'd argue you haven't been paying attention to the last two weeks of camp. Matt Hennessy and Drew Dalman rotate into the first-team every single day. It's a very regimented system the Falcons have going on right now at the position. Smith said early on it would be a fair assessment, and from my vantage point it has been.
I wouldn't "hedge my bets" any direction between the two just yet. The three preseason games are going to be vitally important for the Falcons to decide who - Hennessy or Dalman - they want to be the starting center come Week 1. This could be a position battle we see continue all the way through the preseason, and I am preparing for that. But we'll get to see another step in the process with both - I would imagine - rotating pretty heavily throughout the game in Detroit.
4. Can we see a clean football game?
It could be very easy for the Falcons to not put a clean product out on the field on Friday. With so many new faces, and heavy rotations happening all over the field, the situation almost lends itself to mess ups and mishaps. However, if the Falcons can show they can do the little things right? I'd feel hopeful about where they are at this point in the preseason. But what am I talking about? Pre-snap penalties, taking care of the ball, limiting missed assignments, and - of course - no errors in tackling. Asking Mariota about Smith emphasizing playing clean football in the preseason, the quarterback said that this is a sticking point with the head coach and the team at large.
"I think it's very important because at the end of the day if you don't beat yourself, you give yourself an opportunity to go win the games," Mariota said. "I think some of the better teams in this league, they let teams beat themselves. If we can focus on taking care of the things that we can control, we'll make the plays, we have the talent, we have the guys that can do that... (Play) just a clean game, good execution, everyone comes out healthy."
5. Starters' snap counts
Smith said the Falcons organization has a good relationship with the Lions, so it didn't come as a surprise when he noted that he, Terry Fontenot, Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes had all been in contact in regards to how they wanted Friday to go. For both teams, they're wanting to get good evaluations of the players they have questions about. That means scripting out - to a certain extent - how the game will go. This is often a misconception of the preseason. For me, I'm not all too worried about final outcomes as I am about seeing individual development. I tend to think coaches probably feel the same way. This is why Smith using the example of Grady Jarrett's play time didn't come as a shock to the system at all.
"Leaving in Grady Jarrett versus a rookie free agent guard, I'm not trying to do that," Smith said. "I'm trying to get good evaluations. We've got to do what's best for our team and (Campbell's) got to do what's best for him."
Campbell confirmed earlier in the week that he and Smith spoke and they agreed to play their "starters" early in the game, "maybe a quarter" for Campbell and the Lions. One could assume that's the plan for the Falcons as well considering Smith's comments about Jarrett.
Getting ready to bring the heat to Detroit #RiseUp