Assuming the Georgia Dome turf isn’t made of concrete, football will make its delayed return to our television screens when the Atlanta Falcons host the Washington Redskins.
Preseason sparks an annual debate of how many snaps core players should play, if any at all. These four exhibition games are designed to help rosters get into ‘football shape’ ahead of the regular season, but the greatest impact is to a team’s new faces, specifically rookies.
Performing at a high level in a live game is a different beast to executing drills in the safe confines of a practice field. Thursday’s clash with Washington gives coaches and fans alike their first preview into the Falcons 2016 rookie class.
First-rounder Keanu Neal might be forced to wait on his debut, however. Neal has received glowing reviews at training camp, but a “trunk” injury leaves his status for Thursday up in the air.
While Neal is almost a lock to begin the season as the starting strong safety, second-rounder Deion Jones is in the midst of battle with Paul Worrilow at middle linebacker.
Jones is making a strong case to leapfrog Worrilow as the starter, and a bright preseason debut could swing the pendulum in his direction.
Tight end Austin Hooper was forced to play catchup after missing much of the offseason program. Behind the eight ball at camp, the Falcons’ third-round pick is gradually getting up to speed. Expect to see a heavy dose of Hooper in preseason, particularly in the red zone, with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan testing his development as a pass-catcher and blocker.
Fourth-round linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and sixth-round guard Wes Schweitzer will be hard pressed to earn starting nods before the regular season curtain raiser, but both will likely receive high preseason snap counts. Campbell, in particular, is a player to watch closely as he will feature on the linebacker rotation heavily this year.
With Devin Hester gone, Devin Fuller has an opportunity to carve out a role on the roster. The return specialist’s best chance of making noise is on special teams. He’s currently listed as the second-string punt returner behind Eric Weems, while both players are behind Tevin Coleman on kickoff returns.
If Fuller can impress in preseason—taking one to the house would help—his stock could rise significantly as the Falcons’ return man.
Preseason isn’t a time for the stars. Rookies will be on full display when the Falcons kickoff their season against the Redskins Thursday evening.