Friday Night Lights
What: Atlanta Falcons preseason scrimmage, along with a fan fest, interactive inflatable games, autograph session, fireworks
When: Gates open at 6 p.m.; 6:45 p.m. Friday.
Where: Bobby Gruhn Field at City Park Stadium, Gainesville
How much: Free
More info: atlantafalcons.com
Like any championship-caliber football team, the Atlanta Falcons are privileged to have several certainties throughout the lineup.
When the sun comes up, Mike Smith will be head coach. Matt Ryan will be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and Roddy White and Julio Jones will be one of the deadliest wide receiver tandems in the league.
It’s certainly not a bad era in Falcons history — the team has enjoyed five consecutive seasons with a winning record, including a highly-successful 13-3 campaign last year. When they take the field for their annual Friday Night Lights scrimmage on Friday at City Park Stadium, fans will get a glimpse of a squad primed to make possibly its most serious Super Bowl bid since 1999.
But not all is solidified on the practice fields at team headquarters in Flowery Branch. Atlanta still has questions looming as it begins final month of preseason preparation before the regular season begins Sept. 8.
That being noted, here are five things to watch for at Friday’s scrimmage:
OFFENSIVE LINE POSITION BATTLES: When the Falcons opted to let go of longtime tackle Tyson Clabo in May and shifted 2012 starting right guard Peter Konz back to center this summer, it left a gaping hole of inexperience on the right side of the offensive line entering this season.
The battle has been a heated one at training camp, particularly at the right tackle position. Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes are the two primary candidates for the starting job, with Johnson owning more experience after playing in all 16 games with one start last year.
At right guard, the 6-foot-7 Garrett Reynolds is a frontrunner for the position. He started six games in 2012 but sat out the rest of the season after undergoing back surgery. Konz replaced him there afterward, but with Konz’s move to center, the spot appears to be Reynolds to lose once again.
ROOKIES MAKING A SPLASH IN THE SECONDARY: The Falcons are likely to have at least a partial youth movement in the secondary, particularly at cornerback.
Atlanta entered the 2013 NFL Draft with some holes to fill at the position after the departure of Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson, and the team went all in replenish its pass coverage by selecting a pair of cornerbacks with its first two picks of the draft. Former Washington Huskies standout Desmond Trufant went 22nd overall, and Southeastern Louisiana’s Robert Alford followed in the second round.
Both players are expected to make an immediate impact at cornerback, which had previously been a relatively thin position after 10-year veteran Asante Samuel.
On the other side of the ball, Atlanta strengthened its depth at tight end by selecting the massive Levine Toilolo with its fourth-round selection. The 6-foot-8, 265-pound Stanford alum will spent his rookie season learning the ropes from starting tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is retiring at the end of this season after 16 years of service.
BACKUP QUARTERBACK QUANDARY: It’s hard to imagine anyone lining up under center for the Falcons without a No. 2 on their jersey. But there has to be someone.
Who it is, however, is not exactly set in stone. Matt Ryan has three young signal callers vying to be his backup, including two rookies.
None of them have taken an NFL snap. Dual threat Dominique Davis was on the roster last season, but didn’t see any playing time. Former Duke University starter Sean Renfree was taken in the seventh round of this year’s draft to provide a little more depth at the position, and Seth Doege of Texas Tech fame also holds a position on the roster.
Of course, whoever wins the second-string role will likely be nothing more than a standby in the case of an injury to Ryan. Otherwise, they’ll remain on the sideline for nearly every play of the season.
JACKSON’S EFFECT ON PASSING GAME: The Falcons have given the world to Matt Ryan. Since he was drafted in 2008, Atlanta has provided him with another stud receiver in Julio Jones despite Roddy White’s presence, while bringing in arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, Tony Gonzalez, for even more productivity through the air. Most recently, they filled his wallet with a five-year, $103.75 million contract extension starting in 2014.
So what do you give the quarterback who already has it all?
How about one of the league’s best pass-catching running backs?
The addition of Steven Jackson to the Falcons’ backfield could elevate Ryan’s passing numbers to unforeseen levels. Since joining the league in 2004, the 30-year old Jackson has caught 407 passes — the most of any active player at his position. He caught 90 passes for 806 yards in 2006, numbers comparable to the league’s better wide receivers. He doesn’t produce those kinds of numbers anymore (321 yards on 54 catches in 2012), but he still produces a new element of offense that Atlanta hasn’t experienced in recent years. The previous starter, the now-departed Michael Turner, had six fewer catches the past three years combined than Jackson had last season alone.
But can Jackson still do what his position’s title entails — run the ball? His numbers say yes — he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the eighth straight year in 2012.
FILLING THE BOX: The Falcons may be at their weakest among their front seven on defense, where there’s plenty of talent but no headline names.
Atlanta got younger on the defensive line by dispatching John Abraham in favor of Osi Umenyiora, who will be the team’s primary pass rusher. Fellow defensive end Kroy Biermann is expected to assume a hybrid role that includes linebacker duties. Jonathan Babineaux leads a defensive tackle group that could afford a little more depth. Overall, the Falcons could face some trouble in the trenches if health issues pile up during the season.
Atlanta is still looking for a true leader among its linebackers. The vociferous Sean Weatherspoon is the most viable candidate after tallying 95 tackles, the second-most on the team behind the older Stephen Nicholas (97 tackles). Both players will be counted on for establishing some form of defensive identity this season, something the Falcons occasionally lacked in 2012.