With Steven Jackson out of the lineup, Freeman is likely to get most of the work tonight against the Dolphins. While he may not wind up being the starter, we should see him get work early with the first-team offense. The two areas where Freeman will need to show the most tonight is running the football and pass protection. Toting the rock isn’t a huge challenge for Freeman, but he’ll have to show a few extra things such as the ability to get reliable yards after contact if he doesn’t want to be simply a change-of-pace runner this season. Freeman was a capable pass protector during his collegiate days, but that was then, this is now. He’ll have to show that he can handle the size and strength of NFL defensive linemen, linebackers and other blitzers if he’s going to be trusted to garner serious reps on third down this year. It’s overall, a big potential debut for Freeman. There’s no doubt that Freeman will have some role with the Falcons runners this year, but how big a role that is will be partially determined by how he fares tonight.
There has been a lot of hype surrounding Reedy since his first arrival in Atlanta as an undrafted free agent in May. He’s not the first undrafted rookie wide receiver to receive a great deal of hype as a playmaker in the lead-up to actual games being played. Martel Moore was the superstar of last summer. But Moore did not distinguish himself at all in any of the preseason games despite receiving rave reviews almost every day in practice. Reedy cannot go down that same path.
Reedy has explosive speed and needs to display that tonight after the catch. He should also get a few opportunities as a return man, which should also help his cause. He’s a front-runner as a possible sixth wide receiver on this year’s roster and his preseason debut could help him a long way to earning that.
Maponga is a player that in the past I’ve summarized as needing to create pressure on the quarterback in order to keep a firm hold on his roster spot. A player on the bubble, it all potentially comes to fruition for Maponga tonight. He’ll likely be working with the second and third units in the second and third quarters, which should give him the opportunity to go against lesser Dolphins blockers. If he takes advantage of that opportunity, it could be his first step towards making the team this fall.
In a perfect world, Shembo’s preseason debut will be reminiscent of Paul Worrilow’s last summer. But given the world is far less than perfect, it’s likely that won’t be the case.
But the best foot forward that Shembo can put, the better. He’ll likely see a ton of reps tonight working with the second-unit defense at inside linebacker. Shembo has earned praise for his tackling and coverage abilities in camp, and those things need to also be on display against the Dolphins in the game. Shembo is working behind Joplo Bartu as the weak-side linebacker and it’s very clear that the coaching staff would prefer a bigger, more physical option like Shembo to team up with Paul Worrilow inside in the starting lineup. If Shembo displays that tonight, this battle could get interesting over the next month.
While the Falcons could expect Dezmen Southward back, it’s certainly a possibility that Ishmael could get the start at free safety tonight since Dwight Lowery is out with a concussion. If he does, it will be an important start for Ishmael. While the injuries at safety likely will make it hard for the Falcons to cut Ishmael, he needs to prove that he’s game-ready. Ishmael is a good run defender that lacks ideal speed and range to make plays in coverage. Last season, we saw how that worked against the defense in games where Zeke Motta, a very similar player, started. Ishmael needs to prove that he has the sort of coverage instincts that make him competent on the back-end. Last year in the preseason opener, he was out of position on a deep touchdown pass to Dane Sanzenbacher. Simply put, there cannot be a repeat of that tonight against Miami.
It’s clear the Falcons will proceed with Southward as their primary backup assuming he’s healthy, but the better Ishmael can show tonight, the better their depth will prove to be.