STATESBORO, GA - NOVEMBER 4: Quarterback Shai Wertz #4 of the Georgia Southern Eagles is sacked by linebcker Chase Middleton #39 of the Georgia State Panthers at Paulson Stadium on November 4, 2017 in Statesboro, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images)

Cover 9@9: Falcons will enter 2019 full of question marks

1. Falcons full of questions: While appearing on Rev. Jonathan Simmons’ Real Talk Sports show on Tuesday evening, it came to my attention how little we’ve learned this exhibition season about the Falcons.

Several of the questions about them went unanswered. 

Simmons asked me how good could the Falcons be? Are they a 8-8 team or a Super Bowl contender? 

I basically said, we have to say they are an 8-8 and 9-7 team because we don’t know if they are any good. They didn’t show us much in the exhibition season to conclude that they’ve caught the Saints in the NFC South.

The best thing going for the Falcons is that they are getting a lot of healthy players back and quarterback Matt Ryan looked ready to go. Heading into the exhibition season finale against Jacksonville at 7 p.m. Thursday, we’ve seen cameo appearances by strong safety Keanu Neal, free safety Ricardo Neal and running back Devonta Freeman.

Most of the starters will be held out of the game, while Falcons coach Dan Quinn will attempt to get Kaleb McGary his first action. 

Dynamic wide receiver Julio Jones has looked good running routes in practice and speedy middle linebacker Deion Jones just started to get closer to live action. 

Perhaps this was by design, but based on what we’ve seen, the Falcons haven’t solved many of their issues heading into 2019. 

When they arrive in Minneapolis for the season opener on Sept. 8, they’ll have a bundle of questions that may be answered.

Who’s the kicker and why did they kind rid of Matt Bryant anyway?

Can Freeman play up to his contract that he whined about before the Super Bowl?

Can Freeman stay healthy after missing most of the previous two seasons? 

What’s the deal with Deion Jones missing all of the exhibition season after he came back from a broken foot last season?

Is the offensive line really improved or will Matt Ryan have to hide their deficiencies with a quick passing game and an onslaught of screens from Dirk Koetter’s vast playbook? 

The offensive weaponry looks great on the depth chart, but if the blocking is sub-par it may not matter. 

The special teams were just messy in the exhibition season, but that’s to be expected with a 90-man roster. New coordinator Ben Kotwica has to cobble together the units after the cuts are made.

There were some bright spots, but not enough to project into the season.

The defensive line flashed in the exhibition season. Vic Beasley had a nice sack, Deadrin Senat and Takk McKinley combined on an electric play. Jack Crawford and Tyeler Davision looked sturdy and nasty at times. 

In addition to Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun missed most of the exhibition season with a groin injury. So, two of the three starting linebackers were out. 

In the secondary, in addition to getting Neal and Allen back, Desmond Trufant played strong. He looks primed to return to Pro Bowl form. Second-year starter Isaiah Oliver looked ready, while nickel back Damontae Kazee missed some time with injured ribs. 

Now, that’s a lot of variables. If the Falcons hit on all of them, they will be a contender. 

If not, it could be a long season. 

2. JULIO JONES UPDATE FROM BLANK: The Falcons hope to have All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones’ contract extension done before the start of the season. 

“I would hope so, but I don’t know that,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. “We’ll have to let things take their course. I know that we are definitely in serious negotiations. It’s our goal and their goal as well to get it done before the start of the season.”

The Falcons play their final exhibition game Thursday in Jacksonville and open the regular season Sept. 8 in Minnesota. The team has been working on an extension for the 30-year-old Jones, a six-time Pro Bowler who’s on the verge of breaking the franchise’s record for career receiving yards.

The wide receiver market shifted when the Saints signed Michael Thomas to a five-year, $96.25 million deal that has the potential to surpass the $100 million mark. The 26-year-old Thomas, a second-round pick out of Ohio State in 2016 has three 1,000 yard seasons to start his career and was an All-Pro last season.

Jones said recently that his agent, Jimmy Sexton, is still in the process of negotiating his contract extension. Sexton has not responded to several email and phone calls requesting an interview.

It has been projected that Jones’ deal would be a three-year deal worth $51.8 million with $33 million guaranteed at signing, according to Spotrac. Jones’ deal has two years remaining and is scheduled to make $9.6 million in 2019 and $11.4 million in 2020.

Blank stood behind his statement that Jones would be a “Falcon for life.” 

“I’ve said this publicly and privately to Julio and Julio has said the same thing to me, both privately and publicly,” Blank said. “We expect Julio to be a Falcon for life and we have no reason to think that’s going to change at all. 

“The negotiations continue to move along in a positive way. It’s a big contract and it’s complex and what have you. It takes a little more time than we’d like. Probably a little more time than he would like, but I know we are in a good place.”

3. GRACE LOOKING TO STICK: Jermaine Grace has been on the verge of staying on a NFL roster since 2017.

Back then, the linebacker made the Falcons’ 53-man roster and played in five games before being released on Nov. 14. He was claimed on waivers by the Colts, later claimed by the Browns and then by the Seahawks. When the Seahawks released him last season, the Falcons signed him to the practice squad on Oct. 18. 

Grace, a speedy linebacker at 6-foot and 223 pounds, is having a strong exhibition season and is hoping that he’s done enough to finally find him a permanent NFL home. 

“Most definitely, that’s the plan,” Grace said on Monday. “That was the game plan when God gave me the opportunity to come here once again. Also, make the team and once that happens, then find my role. Do what I have to do and work hard so this could be my official home.”

4. McGARY HAPPY TO BE BACK ON THE FIELD: Falcons right tackle Kaleb McGary, who had a heart ablation procedure on July 31, returned to practice on Sunday.

The rookie first-round pick has been cleared for contact by the team, but the team did not practice in pads on Sunday or Monday. 

“It feels good to move around,” McGary said Monday. “It’s awesome. It’s been really boring sitting in meetings and not getting to do anything in practice. The gratification that you get through the day is gone. So, it’s been really awesome to get to play again.”

5. GEORGIA VS. ALABAMA SHOWCASE SET:  The Georgia vs. Alabama High School Football Showdown will be held Friday and Saturday in Atlanta and is sponsored by Cam Newton and his Cecil Newton’s C1N Enterprise.

Westlake will play Jefferson Davis of Montgomery at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Westlake. The game will be live streamed on 11Alive.com.

Griffin will play Fairfield, Ala. at 2 p.m, Mays will play Carver (Ala) at 5 p.m. and Cedar Grove will play Central Phenix (Ala.) at 8 p.m. at Lakewood Stadium on Saturday.  

6. PENALTIES CUT DOWN:   The Falcons slightly reduced their penalties in the exhibition game against the Redskins.

The Falcons had an exhibition season low nine penalties for 89 yards in the, 19-7, loss Thursday. The Falcons had 12 penalties in each of their previous three exhibition games. 

7. MATT BRYANT ON SPEED DIAL AFTER WEEK ONE?  Instead of going with the old reliable Matt Bryant, the Falcons elected to bring in Blair Walsh, who’s struggled with accuracy in the past and has been out of the NFL for a year.

Bryant, who turned 44 in May, was released by the team in February

“Definitely had discussed Matt, for sure, but we didn’t bring him in for a workout (on Saturday),” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. 

If Bryant is on the roster at the start of Week One, his contact would be fully guaranteed. If after, they Falcons could got week to week essentially. 

In addition to Walsh, the Falcons had in kickers Younghoe Koo and Elliott Fry for the tryout.

Walsh will compete with Giorgio Tavecchio to replace Bryant, who was the team’s kicker for the past 10 seasons. 

Tavecchio has missed 4-of-8 field goal kicks during the exhibition season.

“I think my number one responsibility is, to be honest with the guys,” Quinn said. “Sometimes, in the NFL, it can be difficult for a player walking around a subject or not being honest with where we’re at. When I can, I’d really like to be clear with a player and explain to them what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

8. DUKE RILEY IS STRONGER: Riley, who opened the past two seasons as a starter, led the Falcons in tackles against Washington with six. 

“I think you come off of a game where you perform well and it always adds to your confidence,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said on Monday. “One of the real topics we hit on him was how much stronger could he get during the offseason. That was something we pushed, so he’s bigger than he has been in the past. I think his legs are stronger than they have been in the past.”

Riley, who was drafted in the third round of the 2017 draft, helped to turned back the Redskins from a first-and-goal from the 1 and a second-and-goal from 1. On third down the Redskins had a holding penalty.

Jermaine Grace batted down a pass on third down-and-11 and the Redskins were forced to kick a field goal. 

“I think that leans into the good goal-line play,” Quinn said of Riley’s new strength. “That leans into his tackling. I was excited to see. I thought he was one of the standouts in the game because of the physicality and the tackling. I want to see some more of that.”

Riley played in 12 games and made six starts as a rookie. Last season, Riley played in 16 games and made 10 starts before eventually losing his starting spot to Foye Oluokun. 

9. DEPTH CHART: The battle to win the field goal kicking job between Giorgio Tavecchio and Blair Walsh will take place when the Falcons (0-4) face the Jaguars (0-3) at 7 p.m. Thursday at TIAA Stadium. 

Walsh, the former Georgia star who was out of football in 2018, is attempting to unseat the hand-picked successor to Matt Bryant. Tavecchio, who was handed the job, has missed 4 of 8 field goals in the exhibition season. 

Here’s the fifth official depth chart of the season released by the team: 

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 83 Russell Gage, 15 Devin Gray, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 73 Matt Gono, 67 Dieugot Joseph

LG 77 James Carpenter, 68 Jamon Brown, 64 Sean Harlow

C 51 Alex Mack, 71 Wes Schweitzer, 61 Chandler Miller

RG 63 Chris Lindstrom, 72 Adam Gettis

RT 74 Ty Sambrailo, 76 Kaleb McGary, 75 John Wetzel, 65 Jaelin Robinson

TE 81 Austin Hooper, 80 Luke Stocker, 82 Logan Paulsen, 87 Jaeden Graham, 89 Alex Gray, 85 Thomas Duarte

WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Calvin Ridley, 14 Justin Hardy, 3 Marcus Green, 13 Christian Blake, 7 C.J. Worton

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub 9 Matt Simms

RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 25 Ito Smith, 23 Brian Hill, 32 Qadree Ollison, 38 Kenjon Barner, 46 Tony Brooks-James

FB 30 Ricky Ortiz

DEFENSE

DE 98 Takkarist McKinley, 99 Adrian Clayborn, 48 Durrant Miles, 49 Tre’ Crawford

DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner 66 Stefan Charles

DT 96 Tyeler Davison, 92 Justin Zimmer, 94 Deadrin Senat, 90 Ra’Shede Hageman

DE 93 Allen Bailey, 50 John Cominsky, 91 Chris Odom

DE 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 62 Austin Larkin, 52 Yurik Bethune

LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 42 Duke Riley, 35 Chase Middleton

LB 45 Deion Jones, 55 Bruce Carter, 53 Jermaine Grace, 46 Del’Shawn Phillips, 69 Richie Brown

CB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 23 Jayson Stanley, 30 Jalen Myrick

CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 27 Damontae Kazee, 28 Jordan Miller, 40 Ryan Neal, 39 Taveze Calhoun

S 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman, 34 Chris Cooper

S 22 Keanu Neal, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 43 Parker Baldwin 32 Ronald Martin

SPECIALISTS

K 4 Giorgio Tavecchio, 16 Blair Walsh

KO 5 Matt Bosher

P 5 Matt Bosher

LS 47 Josh Harris

H 5 Matt Bosher 

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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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