Tonight the Atlanta Falcons will face off against the Cleveland Browns in their second preseason game of the summer. After a solid win against the Washington Redskins last week, a game in which several players that I singled out as players to watch performed well. Hopefully several of the players this week will also follow suit.
WR Devin Fuller
After a strong first impression by undrafted rookie J.D. McKissic last week with his 101-yard kickoff return for touchdown, this week will be a prime opportunity for the Falcons’ seventh-round pick in Fuller to showcase his own abilities as a returner. While Fuller will get extended reps as a receiver on offense, it is his return abilities that are his best pathway to making the roster. Fuller won’t have to score a touchdown this week to keep pace with McKissic, but he does need to show a bit more with a couple of solid returns, particularly on punts. Because of his draft status Fuller will be given every opportunity to win the returner spot outright, but it doesn’t mean he’ll be handed anything. A strong performance against the Browns could go a long way to earning that gig.
OG Andy Levitre
Levitre was given the quick hook after one series last week, giving way to Mike Person at left guard. It remains to be seen what sort of indicator that could be for where Levitre’s status is with the coaching staff. It could mean that they are very comfortable with Levitre as the team’s starter and were willing to pull him after a single series, much like they did with Julio Jones. But it could also mean that Levitre is losing the fight for his job with Person, who saw more snaps with the team’s other entrenched starters along the offensive line. Clarity on this issue could be gained by how Levitre is deployed this week against the Browns.
This is of course worth mentioning due to how the Falcons handled incumbent starters Joe Hawley and Jon Asamoah along the offensive line last summer. Both players wound up losing their starting jobs outright, despite most believing they were both safe entering the summer. A good indicator that Levitre has the upper hand in the battle is if he doesn’t alternate series with Person to start the game. However if both players split their time with the starters this week, it will be another indicator that Levitre’s grip on a roster spot is not quite so safe as many might expect.
Right now, Levitre is set to have the fourth-highest cap hit on the team in 2016, counting $5.375 million against the cap. The team can free up $4 million in cap space should they cut him, which could be an enticing amount of savings if they don’t feel that there is any dropoff between Levitre and Person.
OC Alex Mack
Mack is mentioned only because wide receiver Aldrick Robinson shined against his former team in the Redskins last week to the tune of 118 yards receiving, there’s a possibility that Mack going up against his former team in Cleveland will also lead to a dominant performance. Mack isn’t under any real pressure as one of the team’s most secure starters on the roster, but it would be nice for the Falcons to see a strong performance from their $45 million man, something that did not happen last week.
While Mack always said the right things, there were several indicators that he was not happy during his final two years in Cleveland. If there was any lingering resentment from the Falcons’ new veteran center, it would be nice to see it taken out on his former teammates to showcase exactly why Mack was worth every penny.
SS Keanu Neal
The Falcons’ top draft selection this past April will be making his NFL debut and of course many eyes will be glued to how effectively he transitions to the pro level. Particularly given that the debuts of linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell last week met very positive acclaim, it would be nice for Neal to follow suit. Neal has also created a lot of buzz during training camp with his physicality and maturity, and it would be nice to see that reflected on the field tonight against the Browns.
Ideally there will be at least one bone-crunching hit that he can deliver to an opposing player, a trademark of his during his days at Florida and early in camp. The Falcons are looking for that fast and physical element to their defense, and Neal has a prime opportunity to provide it on the back end.
CB Jalen Collins
Collins spent all of his time last week against the Redskins working with the third-string defense in the second half of the game. The second-year corner is clearly in the doghouse with the coaching staff given his looming four-game suspension to start the regular season. Collins is in no danger of losing his roster spot, but really needs to have a strong summer and preseason to get clear of the coaches’ crosshairs.
2016 will be a huge year for Collins, as it not only is an opportunity for him to redeem himself after a lackluster rookie campaign, but also an audition to potentially move permanently into the starting lineup since starting cornerback Robert Alford is set to hit free agency next spring and could easily walk for greener pastures. Any improvements Collins shows and any progress he makes up the depth chart will be a good sign.
CB/S Brian Poole
With backup strong safety Kemal Ishmael expected to miss tonight’s game because he is nursing a shoulder injury, it will be an opportunity for several of the other young, backup safeties to showcase their abilities. While it’s likely that strong safeties Damian Parms and Sharrod Neasman will see increased reps to fill in for an absent Ishmael, there’s also the possibility that the second-team safety group could consist of Poole and Robenson Therezie. Both players serve as reserves at free safety, but Therezie also has the potential to pull double duty as a reserve strong safety. It would be a strong indicator that the Falcons coaches are high on Poole’s ability should he start to get second-team reps at free safety, while Therezie fills in for Ishmael as the backup strong safety behind Neal.
Not to mention, it will also be important to see if Poole continues to log first-team reps as the team’s slot cornerback, as he did last week against the Redskins. If so, it’ll be another strong indicator that Poole is the likeliest of all the undrafted players to potentially land a spot on the final 53-man roster in a couple of weeks.