36 days. That is what separates us from the kickoff of the NFL regular season. But for now, we set our sights on the Hall of Fame Game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos. Let’s be honest: a lot of the stars are going to be riding the pine in this one. However, I am here to break down all the interesting tidbits and factoids to examine during Thursday Night’s preseason kickoff.
Kickoff: Thursday 8/1 at 8 pm (ET)
Location: Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio
Betting Odds: DEN -2.5 via Oddsshark
Network: NBC or stream on NBC Sports Live
Backfield Battle Brewing
It is evident that Devonta Freeman’s place atop the depth chart is secure. However, there has been an interesting competition brewing behind him. Second-year man Ito Smith saw a lot of time in the starting lineup last season and should have the first crack at backup duties. The Falcons have recently established their affinity for rookie Qadree Ollison and Dirk Koetter seems keen on the idea of getting him involved early. He and Brian Hill will likely duke it out for short-yardage duties and the number three spot in the rotation. Veteran Kenjon Barner also makes things interesting with what he can do in the return and passing game.
Defensive Line Depth
The Falcons were devastated by injuries last year, especially on the defensive side. One of the Falcons’ top priorities in the offseason was to add depth to both sides of the line. The first order of business was to lock up star defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. The Falcons also brought in veteran defensive end Allen Bailey after Michael Bennett was hurt during training camp. Jarrett and Bailey are joined by fellow linemen: Vic Beasley Jr., Takkarist McKinley, Adrian Clayborn, Jack Crawford, Tyeler Davison, Deadrin Senat, rookie John Cominsky, and Falcons’ reclamation project Ra’Shede Hageman. The Falcons might not have a lot of big-name guys on this defense that the casual NFL fan would recognize, but they have done an incredible job stuffing the defensive line with a great mix of veterans and young talent. I don’t know which of them will get the chance to see action in this game, but it will be exciting to see if this group can get the pass-rush going early.
Offensive Line in Limbo
The Falcons used both of their first-round picks on offensive linemen. Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary were selected to compete for the starting jobs at guard and tackle. Both have flashed in camp and made legitimate cases to be the day-one starters. However, news broke today that McGary will undergo cardiac ablation surgery. McGary has a history of heart problems and has had two previous surgeries like this one. He was sidelined 6-8 weeks after the last procedure. This is not a great start for a team who was riddled with injuries a season ago. The good news is the Falcons signed Jamon Brown and James Carpenter during free agency to give the birds added depth at the position. For now, Lindstrom is still in line to start at right guard, while Ty Sambrailo is penciled in at the right tackle spot. The Falcons will need consistency beside Jake Matthews and Alex Mack if they want their offense to maximize the bevy of weapons they have in their arsenal.
Broncos’ Young Pass-Catchers
Emmanuel Sanders is reportedly ahead of schedule in terms of injury recovery. However, a receiver at his age coming off an Achilles injury is no small matter. That is where receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton will have to pick up the slack. Sutton finished 2018 with 704 yards but only four touchdowns. He holds the early advantage over Hamilton but DaeSean could be on Sutton’s heels. The Broncos will also look to get rookie tight end Noah Fant involved in multiple ways. All three of these guys are candidates to get looks in the red zone. It will be interesting to see how this run-first offense chooses to divvy up the targets.
Phillip Lindsay vs Royce Freeman Round Two
If you thought Lindsay was cemented as a number-one feature back, think again. There are rumblings from the Denver beat reporters that this will be much more of a timeshare than anticipated. Lindsay was a PPR dynamo last season, while Freeman was not much more than a preseason hype machine. It would be disappointing to see Lindsay lose volume, but the fact is that he is not exactly built to withstand a beating. The biggest concern is whether Lindsay will lose looks near the goal line or not. There is certainly a world where these two coexist, but it will be frustrating nonetheless. Pay close attention to how the Broncos split the carries during camp and the preseason.
Another Quarterback Project
John Elway has had seven different starting quarterbacks in his eight years in Denver’s front office. Denver made waves in the offseason by shaking up their quarterback position yet again. Aside from trading away Case Keenum and acquiring Joe Flacco, the Broncos used high draft capital on a quarterback when they chose Drew Lock with their second-round pick. Drew Lock had a solid draft profile and displayed an NFL-caliber arm to scouts. One of his biggest weaknesses is his short to intermediate accuracy. He will likely have the advantage of sitting behind Flacco for at least a year while he gets adjusted to the NFL game. However, we could get an extended look at Lock during Thursday’s contest; that’s reason enough to be excited. And let’s be honest, we need something else to get excited about in this one besides the return of football.
Featured image by Nathan Mills (@NathanMillsPL on Twitter)