The birds are back! 5 things to watch when Falcons play Jets tonight

Quarterback Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons at the line of scrimmage against the New York Jets during the first half of the game at MetLife Stadium. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

ATLANTA, Ga. — Don’t expect to see the Falcons’ starters for many plays during the exhibition season opener against the New York Jets at 7:30 p.m. Friday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the veterans will play on a case-by-case basis. Last season, in the exhibition opener against Miami, they played one series, but it was a costly one as Devonta Freeman suffered a concussion and missed the rest of the exhibition season.

“One of things we are really committed to is playing the rookies and the first-year guys,” Quinn said.


Here are five things to look for in the exhibition opener:

1. Position battles: Wes Schweitzer was listed with the first team in the first official depth chart released by the team. He's battling Brandon Fusco to retain his right guard starting spot.

There are other position battles, too.

“I think there is real competition at fullback,” Quinn said. “At the halfback spot, who’s going to find some third halfback roles. One of the key factors, I know I said third halfback, but how also does their role on special teams factor in.”

Ricky Ortiz was listed ahead of Luke McNitt at fullback on the depth chart.

Running backs Ito Smith, Terrance Magee, Justin Crawford and Malik Williams are competing for the third running back spot. Smith is a fourth-round draft pick from Southern Mississippi.

The Falcons are seeking to replace Terron Ward.

2. Saubert watch: Falcons second-year tight end Eric Saubert has caught the attention of the coaching staff with a strong training camp.

Saubert will get plenty action against the Jets.

“I’m certainly looking to see how Saub looks,” Quinn said. “He had limited reps last year. He’s somebody who has our attention at tight end.”

Saubert, a fifth-round pick out of Drake in 2017, played 30 snaps on offense and 212 on special teams last season.

“He was guarded,” Quinn said. “He was so prideful (about) doing it right. He knew his assignment, but I don’t know if he fully trusted his training. He practiced hard. He studied hard. He went for it. Then this offseason, we are seeing that jump take place.”

Saubert played in 41 games and made 37 starts over his college career. He caught 190 passes for 2,253 yards and 21 touchdowns.

“We’re like man, you know your stuff,” Quinn said. “Let your natural athleticism jump out. He’s really kind of turning into the kind of pass-catching tight end that I’d hope we see. I’m anxious for him to get a chance to (show) that.”

The Falcons elected not to re-sign Levine Toilolo and signed veteran Logan Paulsen as the blocking tight end. Saubert would give them another pass-catching threat behind Austin Hooper.

“With that role, he also has to be active and have a role on special teams,” Quinn said. “He’s long. He’s fast. I now see the athlete.”

Quinn and the staff knew there would be a transition from the FCS collegiate level to the NFL.

“It’s not that uncommon,” Quinn said. “He’s moved past that. Not only is he trusting his training, you see this big jump in athleticism. We are expecting to see him a good bit in the (exhibition) season. He needs game experiences and quarters of play.”

3. Quarterback rotation: Quinn has his quarterback rotation set.

“We’ll certainly get some work with both Matts, Schaub and Matt Ryan in the first half,” Quinn said. “Then as it gets into the second quarter, we want to take a good look at Kurt (Benkert) and Garrett (Grayson) both. ... We’ll see how the game plays out, but we are hopeful to get all four of them some meaningful reps.”

4. Walking wounded: Kicker Matt Bryant, who appears to have some muscle related injury, and offensive tackle Ty Sambrailo (hand) will not play.

Defensive end Takkarist McKinley, who’s been battling back from shoulder surgery, will dress and be available, according to Quinn.

McKinley has had a shoulder bruise after undergoing offseason surgery. He’s been limited from most 11-on-11 action during training camp.

“He was good,” Quinn said. “What I was looking for, like for any guy coming back, is there any hesitancy and he had none.

“That’s what I was looking for and he responded in the right way. He was kind of chomping at the bit to get back. We just wanted to make sure, in all instances ,that we are taking care of the guys in the best way so that we are not coming back all the way from whatever injury, so I was pleased to see that.”

5. The return game: Wide receiver Justin Hardy is listed as the top kickoff and punt returner on the team's official depth chart.

Hardy, who was a fourth-round pick out of East Carolina in 2015, returned punts in college, but not kickoffs. He has returned three kickoffs in the NFL.

He’s the safe pick in the mode of the dependable Eric Weems.

Hardy, 27, who’s 5-foot-9 and 192 pounds, has won the respect of the coaching staff with his toughness on special teams.

In college, he returned 63 punts for 495 yards, 7.9 yards per return with no touchdowns. In the NFL, he gained 52 yards for a average of 17.3 yards.

Rookie Calvin Ridley and wide receiver Marvin Hall were returning punts Wednesday along with Hardy.

Also, Quinn wants to see Smith return live kickoffs.

“I’m sure you’ve seen (intern assistant coach) Leon Washington back there every day working with him as well,” Quinn said. “I do think he has the traits to do it. He has real quickness to go. We’re going to have to get him into to some game reps and take a look at it.”

At Southern Miss, Smith returned 26 kickoffs for 550 yards for an average of 21.2 yards per return.