5 position battles to watch for Falcons in exhibition opener

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons have gone through a well-paced training camp in the scorching Georgia heat.

When the Falcons face the Lions at 6 p.m. Friday at Ford Field, the Falcons coaching staff will start to get some real football to evaluate.

Coach Arthur Smith, who is entering his second season, has installed key components of the offense, defense and special teams. Now, finally, it’s time to play some real football that includes blocking and tackling – which no longer is done fully in training camps around the NFL.

Explore5 Falcons to watch in the exhibition opener

Smith has talked to Lions coach Dan Campbell, and both plan to play their starters for about a quarter.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Dan and (general manager) Brad Holmes,” Smith said. “I like what they’re doing. (General manager) Terry (Fontenot) and I have become great friends with those guys. Terry has a relationship with Dan from their days in New Orleans.”

Holmes and Campbell were hired during the same cycle and are going into their second season.

“They are trying to build something,” Smith said. “So, I’ve got a lot of respect for them. We’ve casually talked, but there are no limits, that’s not what we’re doing.”

For instance, Smith doesn’t plan to leave defensive end Grady Jarrett in the game against rookie free agents.

“I’m not trying to do that; I’m trying to get good evaluations,” Smith said. “We’ve got to do what’s best for our team, and he’s got to do what’s best for him.”

The Falcons must find out if their offensive linemen have improved, if the new defenders can stop the run and rush the passer, and if the wide receivers, who look great running on air, can respond when they get walloped for the first time.

Here are five position battles to watch in the exhibition game:

1. Center: In the most hotly contested battle of training camp, the Falcons have rotated incumbent Matt Hennessy with second-year center Drew Dalman.

“It’s still competitive, nothing’s changed there, so we’ll see how that plays out,” Smith said. “Both of those guys are doing a nice job, and (Ryan) Neuzil is trying to push them, too, but Drew and Henny are in a good competition.”

Hennessy started last season, and the staff tried to rotate Dalman in during the season. They scrapped the rotation plan after a couple of games.

Hennessy was a third-round pick by the former administration. He was graded slightly higher than Dalman by Pro Football Focus last season.

Dalman, who played at Stanford, was projected to be a second-round pick, but when he was still available in the fourth round, the Falcons snapped him up.

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2. Defensive end: In the 3-4 end opposite of Jarrett, Ta’Quon Graham appears to have pulled ahead of Marlon Davidson, who has missed the past two practices.

The Falcons are looking for Graham or Davidson to stop the run and provide some interior push. If teams are double-teaming Jarrett, then the end on the other side has to defeat his one-on-one block.

Also, if the nose tackle is a load to handle and needs to be double-teamed, Jarrett and Graham or Davidson will have one-on-one blocks to defeat.

Some of the young defensive tackles have had strong camps and have won their share of one-on-one drills against offensive linemen.

3. Left guard: Elijah Wilkinson has emerged as the first-team guard in his battle with Jalen Mayfield.

Wilkinson has started in the league, but mostly outside at right tackle. He is making the conversion inside, where the action is fast and furious.

“Some things he’s worked through, but I think for the most part I’ve been pretty pleased,” Smith said. “It’s different, but I think he’s getting more comfortable with that spot every day. So, until someone else emerges or he does something that doesn’t deserve to be up there, he’ll be in there right now.”

Mayfield was losing some of his battles in the one-on-one drills and missed some action with a lower back injury.

It wouldn’t be wise to count out Mayfield. He has time to show his power and athletic ability that made him a third-round pick.

Also, Smith has a place in his heart for players who overcome adversity and battle back. Mayfield is in that position. He still has enough time to fix his technique issues and display some overpowering play in the trenches.

4. Inside linebacker: Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones are being replaced.

Oluokun, who led the league in tackles last season, signed with the Jaguars in free agency. Jones has missed the offseason after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Jones is on the physically-unable-to-perform list and is shooting to return by the season opener.

Rashaan Evans was signed to replace Oluokun, and Mykal Walker is working with the first team in Jones’ old spot.

The Falcons were willing to trade Jones over the offseason, but his contract was a deterrent, according to two AFC executives.

Evans is trying to resurrect his once-promising career. Walker has flashed in limited duty and has had a strong offseason.

5. Nickel back: Isaiah Oliver is working his way back from knee surgery.

Oliver’s play has increased during training camp. Darren Hall, Mike Ford and a host of others also have spent time at nickel back.

Oliver believes he’ll be ready for full-time duty by the season opener when he can shed the brace that he’s wearing on his right knee.

Part of the Falcons’ plan to improve the pass rush is to have tighter coverage.

If Oliver can make it back, that will help the unit immensely.

Hall has had a strong camp and is a good option.

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