The Atlanta Falcons will kick off the Dan Quinn era with a home preseason-opener against the Tennessee Titans later tonight. Here are five Falcons players to watch in tonight’s matchup.
DE Vic Beasley
The Falcons’ top draft selection in 2015 will have his NFL debut tonight against the Titans. Should he earn starting reps, he’ll likely face Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan, who is coming off a solid, but injury-shortened rookie season. We will get to truly see how Beasley’s exceptional speed measures up against a quality starting tackle. If and when Beasley lines up on the opposite side of the line, he’ll be facing the likes of former Carolina Panther Byron Bell, who is competing with the likes of rookie Jeremiah Poutasi for the Titans’ starting right tackle spot. It’s a much more favorable matchup for Beasley, since Bell is less likely to be able to handle Beasley’s speed than Lewan can.
OG James Stone
Several signs indicate that Stone is slated to start at left guard tonight, given that he’s taken all the first-team reps at the position this week. Even though the Falcons starters aren’t expected to get a ton of reps tonight, he’ll likely have several matchups against Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. Casey over the past two summers has collected 2.5 sacks against the Falcons, wreaking havoc among the left side of the Falcons offensive line due to his disruptive ability. Whether he can handle Casey will be an excellent litmus test for Stone to see how much improvement he’s made from 2014 to 2015.
OT Jake Matthews
Matthews missed most of the offseason recovering from a foot injury, but has been healthy throughout camp. Against the Titans, he’ll likely feature several matchups against outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. Orakpo prefers to utilize his power and a bull rush to get after the quarterback, and that was an area of weakness for Matthews a year ago, particularly during an early stretch of the season where he was dealing with foot and ankle injuries. If Matthews can handle Orakpo’s power tonight, it’ll be a good sign that he’s also made strides as a blocker.
DT Ra’Shede Hageman
The Falcons’ second-year defensive tackle will be another player that has an opportunity to show how much growth he’s made from his rookie year. As the team’s under tackle, Hageman will likely line up the majority of snaps on the right side of the defensive line. That should put him up against Titans left guard Andy Levitre. Levitre has struggled when facing Falcons interior players like Jonathan Babineaux in past matchups, and thus Hageman has a potentially favorable matchup where he can win by utilizing his power. The key for Hageman this summer is to show much greater consistency on a snap-t0-snap basis than he did a year ago and it starts tonight.
QB Sean Renfree
Renfree has received a bit of buzz thus far in camp, closing the gap on T.J. Yates in the battle over who will be Matt Ryan’s primary backup this summer. With the starters likely to get an early hook, that should leave plenty of opportunities for both Yates and Renfree to shine. And unlike past years, the Falcons’ backup quarterbacks shouldn’t be as limited by the team’s lack of quality wide receiver depth to target. Backups like Leonard Hankerson, Devin Hester, Eric Weems, Justin Hardy, Bernard Reedy, Carlton Mitchell and Nick Williams give them talented receivers that have some actual NFL game experience to target in the second half against the Titans. Thus there should be less of an excuse as there have been in past summers were Falcons backup quarterbacks have been lackluster. Last preseason, Renfree was pretty spotty with some of his performances. He won’t have the luxury of being so again this summer, as once again Yates probably has the edge in terms of comfort within the system. Renfree needs to show that he can manage pressure and be decisive and accurate with his throws. If so, then he’ll put himself into a better position to take the job from Yates this summer.