5 things to know about Falcons' top pick Chris Lindstrom.

Cover 9@9: 5 Falcons who must turn in mega-seasons to lead a turnaround

1. Five the hard way: If the Falcons are going to rebound from that injury-riddled 7-9 season and return to elite status in the NFC, there are five players who must deliver big seasons. 

Quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones, linebacker Deion Jones, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, strong safety Keanu Neal and free safety Ricardo Allen are exempt. They are absolute pillars of the team.

To get a major boost against this wicked schedule some unexpected players must step up their games, play at an elite level and make some big game-changing plays. 

Here’s a look at those five very important players: 

Takk McKinley: He led the team with seven sacks last season. Coach Dan Quinn has raved about him being in shape and noted that he’s had a strong offseason that didn’t require any shoulder surgery.

“The conditioning is the real factor where as a pass rusher, it’s kind of like in lacrosse, the maxing of the sprint,” Quinn said. “How far could you go? Or how many times could you do that in a row before it goes down.”

McKinley had 4.5 sacks over the first three games before fading last season. 

“For him, his volume, his conditioning, being able to go through the entire off season, training camp uninhibited, where he’s not having to monitor any reps,” Quinn said. “Man, his condition is really good. I think that’s what you’ll see when we need to be at our best late, he’s going to be stronger and faster than he’s been. That’s a big deal.”

Devonta Freeman: If he can return to 2015 and 2016 form, the offense will be dramatically improved. He only played  in two games last season. 

Freeman played briefly in the exhibition season, but Quinn has raved about his return and how he’s practiced.

Isaiah Oliver: He will take over for Robert Alford at right cornerback. 

Damontae Kazee: He will slide down from free safety to play nickel back. 

Chris Lindstrom: The rookie will start at right guard and must make sure that the interior of Ryan’s pocket is firm. He didn’t look out of place in the exhibition season, but he did give up five pressures over the first three games. He’ll be just fine after adjusting to the speed of the game. 

2. Sanu can toss the rock: Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, a former college quarterback, in a Bleacher Report’s “Ditch the Playbook with Lefoke” showed off his passing arm. 

The show is going to debut on the Bleacher Report App today.

The person standing with the clipboard is from Madden Football. When the host — Adam Lefkoe — talks about getting a play in the playbook as a QB, he means that EA has added a pass play for Sanu in the game because of that effort. For the record — he threw further than the longest throws by Cam Newton, Tom Brady, and yes, Ryan. 

3. Sanu to donate funds to fight cancer: Sanu, in a partnership with former NFL player Devon Still’s Still Strong Foundation, will help raise fund to fight pediatric cancer. Sanu and 13 other NFL players are dedicating their on-field performance stats and encouraging their fans and supporters to pledge a donation to help defeat cancer.

The 14 NFL players and Still Strong Foundation, in celebration of Still’s daughter Leah being in remission for five years, are partnering with Pledge It, a free sports fundraising platform, that empowers athletes to raise money based on their game-day performance.

Sanu’s pledge is for catches and is called Catches Against Cancer.

Fans and supporters of these 14 NFL players can go online and pledge any amount for their favorite players’ selected stat throughout the season on PledgeIt.org.

4. Game time: The Falcons, who went 7-9 last season, will face the Minnesota Vikings, who went 8-7-1 last season, at 1 p.m. on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Both teams missed the playoffs after going to the divisional round and to the NFC title game, respectively, after the 2017 regular season. Both, with much of the same rosters, are trying to reclaim elite status in the NFC. 

5. Series: The Vikings lead the regular-season series 18-10. The teams are 1-1 in playoff meetings. The Vikings have won the last three meetings. The Vikings won the last meeting 14-9 on Dec. 3, 2017 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

6. Favorite: The Vikings are favored by 3.5 points. 

7. Practice squad: Tight end Carson Meier, who played at Oklahoma, was signed to the Falcons’ practice squad Tuesday. 

Before signing Meier, the Falcons had a visit from tight end Cole Wick, a veteran who has played with Detroit and San Francisco, but is one game short of two accrued NFL seasons. 

Meier, who’s 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds, filled the 10th slot. The rest of the practice squad includes: quarterback Danny Etling, wide receiver Christian Blake, defensive back Chris Cooper, guard Sean Harlow, defensive end Austin Larkin, defensive end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, defensive tackle Justin Zimmer, wide receiver Brandon Powell and safety Jamal Carter.

In 2019, a practice-squad player can earn a minimum of $8,000 per week during the regular season and the playoffs, according to the collective bargaining agreement. There is no cap on the salary.

The practice squad normally consists of rookies and undrafted free agents. The team can carry up to four veterans, who have no more than two accrued NFL seasons (six games on the 53-man roster qualifies as an accrued season).

8. Key matchups: The game feature one of the Vikings’ strengths, a stout defensive line, against a perceive weakness of the Falcons, the revamped offensive line. 

The Falcons will start rookie Chris Lindstrom at right guard and may start Matt Gono, a second-year tackle from Division III Wesley (Dover, Del.) at right tackle. Falcons first-round pick Kaleb McGary is not in game shape after missing most of the exhibition season.

The Vikings feature defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. They are stout up the middle with 329-pound tackle Linval Joseph. 

“We’ve been impressed by what we’ve seen,” Quinn said. “Throughout the years they have always been really strong with (defensive coordinator) George (Edwards) and Mike in charge. At linebacker, safety, at rushers in the whole space.”

Veteran kicker Matt Bryant discusses his return to the Falcons and his health after his recent kicking session. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter)

9. Depth chart: Just days before the start of the season, the Falcons have not made their final decisions at two crucial positions along the offensive line or they are trying to make the Minnesota Vikings guess about the starting lineup.

The Falcons list Gono or Kaleb McGary as the starting right tackle. After getting his first action of the exhibition season against Jacksonville, McGary said he didn’t think he was in game shape, but would give it a go if asked.

He had a cardiac ablation procedure on July 31. 

Also at left guard, the Falcons list James Carpenter or Jamon Brown as the starter.

It understandable that the team doesn’t want to tip its hand to the Vikings and their stout defensive line. 

Here’s the first official depth chart of the season: 

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 18 Calvin Ridley, 83 Russell Gage
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 74 Ty Sambrailo
LG 68 Jamon Brown or 77 James Carpenter
C 51 Alex Mack 71 Wes Schweitzer
RG 63 Chris Lindstrom
RT 73 Matt Gono or 76 Kaleb McGary
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 80 Luke Stocker, 87 Jaeden Graham
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 25 Ito Smith, 38 Kenjon Barner, 23 Brian Hill, 32 Qadree Ollison
FB 40 Keith Smith

DEFENSE

DE 98 Takkarist McKinley, 99 Adrian Clayborn
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford
DT 96 Tyeler Davison, 94 Deadrin Senat
DE 93 Allen Bailey, 50 John Cominsky
DE 44 Vic Beasley Jr.
LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 42 Duke Riley
LB 45 Deion Jones, 53 Jermaine Grace
CB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 27 Damontae Kazee, 20 Kendall Sheffield
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 28 Jordan Miller
S 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman
S 22 Keanu Neal, 36 Kemal Ishmael

SPECIALISTS

K 3 Matt Bryant
KO 5 Matt Bosher
P 5 Matt Bosher
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 5 Matt Bosher
KOR 38 Kenjon Barner
PR Kenjon Barner, (Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy in practice)

About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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