Here are five Atlanta Falcons players to watch in tonight’s preseason opener against the Washington Redskins. The Falcons are set to face the Redskins at 7:00 p.m. Eastern in their home venue of the Georgia Dome. Tonight’s matchup will not only feature the debut of many fresh faces to the Falcons roster, but also give opportunities for some returning players to show their worth.
QB Matt Schaub
As the presumptive favorite to win the backup spot behind starting quarterback Matt Ryan, Schaub needs to get off to as good a start as possible tonight. He is likely to draw the majority of the playing time between the backup passers tonight, likely playing most of the first half and perhaps even a good portion of the second. In previous years, presumptive No. 2s like T.J. Yates and Chris Redman were unable to impress enough in their preseason debuts, opening the door for each to eventually lose their grip on a roster spot by summer’s end. While Schaub will still have plenty of opportunities in the three final preseason games to prove his merit, creating a little separation tonight between himself, Sean Renfree and Matt Simms could go a long way to solidifying his spot on a roster spot.
WR Aldrick Robinson
Much like Schaub, Robinson is the frontrunner to earn the fourth wide receiver spot and needs to start as fast as possible to secure that spot. What Robinson brings to the table is speed and it would be nice if he can display that against his former team in the Redskins. Perhaps that might add a bit of extra fuel to his fire by showing up his former employer.
It’s also important that Robinson is able to reliably produce on offense this summer because of his very limited background in playing on special teams. Unlike several other Falcons reserve receivers, he won’t be as able to fall back on a proven or established role in the third phase of the game to help him earn a roster spot. If Robinson is going to stick in Atlanta, it’s going to be because the Falcons love the explosiveness he brings to their offense. Tonight is a prime opportunity to showcase that ability.
DE/DT Courtney Upshaw
Based off the team’s initial depth chart, Upshaw is expected to make the move to the interior for the Falcons. That hints that the Falcons are looking to find a role for the free-agent addition, given it’s a brand new position for him. After playing as an outside linebacker in Baltimore’s 3-4 scheme for four years, expectations were that Upshaw would come to Atlanta to compete as a defensive end in their base defense. However the emergence of Brooks Reed and the move of Ra’Shede Hageman to end has presumably limited Upshaw’s potential to impact there. Instead it appears that the Falcons are planning to deploy the bulky Upshaw inside in their nickel sub-package, carving out a similar role as to Adrian Clayborn’s a year ago with the Falcons.
Upshaw has never been known for his pass-rushing abilities, leading to a decline in reps over the years with the Ravens. If most of his opportunities this summer come in the form of playing on passing downs, he’ll have to show that the Ravens were premature in giving up on him. Otherwise he’ll be hard-pressed to stick on the Falcons roster given how laden it is with other defensive linemen that aren’t really in danger of being cut. Upshaw has no such security and will have to scrap and fight for a roster spot, which begins tonight.
LB Deion Jones
The Falcons’ rookie second-round pick is in direct competition with veteran Paul Worrilow for the starting spot at middle linebacker this summer. While Jones has earned enough first-team reps throughout the spring and summer to believe he could be considered the favorite to win the battle, he’ll need to prove it tonight against the Redskins.
While fellow rookie De’Vondre Campbell has garnered more acclaim through the early part of training camp, it’s Jones that faces a lot more scrutiny given the importance of his position. As the team’s starting middle linebacker, Jones would be responsible for making all of the defensive calls. That leadership role requires much more than athleticism, which we already know Jones possesses in spades. What isn’t quite known is whether Jones is ready to step up and essentially quarterback the Falcons defense this year. A strong debut performance could go a very long way to solidifying Jones as the favorite to win that gig heading into the regular season.
CB Akeem King
While the rest of this list contains newcomers to the team looking to make strong first impressions, King is a returning player that is also looking to do the same. Given the looming four-game suspension of fellow 2015 draft pick Jalen Collins to start the regular season, King is considered the closest thing to an incumbent to win the nickel cornerback spot behind starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
King will be making a huge leap from rarely used fifth cornerback (only 14 defensive snaps last year) to third option this year, which puts pressure on him to play well early. That’s because not only is King competing against the other inexperienced cornerbacks currently on the Falcons roster, but also trying to dissuade the team from bringing in a more experienced veteran off the waiver wire later this month. Essentially King is going to have to perform like an established veteran if he wants to be the team’s opening-day nickel cornerback, a process which begins tonight.