Rookie Duke Riley could crack starting lineup for Falcons

Rookie linebacker Duke Riley (42) has impressed with his speed and leadership. David Goldman/AP

The Atlanta Falcons could have a handful of new starters compared to last year's season-opening lineup against the Buccaneers. Here's a starting lineup projection:


Quarterback (Matt Ryan): The reigning MVP hasn't missed a game since 2009 and will be looking to pass for 4,000 yards for the seventh consecutive season.

Running back (Devonta Freeman): Named to consecutive Pro Bowls, Freeman has 27 touchdowns the past two seasons.

Wide receiver (Julio Jones): Arguably the most dangerous big-play threat in the game, Jones is aiming for 1,400-plus receiving yards for the fourth consecutive season.

Wide receiver (Mohamed Sanu): In his first season with the Falcons last year, Sanu had just one drop on 79 targets, catching 59 passes for 653 yards and four touchdowns.

Wide receiver (Taylor Gabriel): Gabriel tied Jones for the team lead with six touchdown receptions last season.

Tight end (Austin Hooper): Hooper was slowed early in his rookie season by an injury, but he got better as the season went along and had a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

Left tackle (Jake Matthews): The former first-round draft pick still has the skills to be a special player but needs to do a better job of slowing down rushers.

Left guard (Andy Levitre): The veteran fared better in 2016 than he did upon being traded to the Falcons from Tennessee prior to 2015.

Center (Alex Mack): The Pro Bowler brought instant stability to the offensive line with his savvy play and ability to get to the second level and block.

Right guard (Wes Schweitzer): He was inactive for every game of his rookie season, but Schweitzer has impressed coaches with his offseason preparation, though he is in an intense battle with Ben Garland.

Right tackle (Ryan Schraeder): The former undrafted player has quietly emerged into a force with his relentless fight and improved technique.


Defensive end (Vic Beasley): Beasley might not start every game based on the defensive formation, but he'll be the primary rusher coming off a season in which he led the league with 15.5 sacks.

Defensive end (Derrick Shelby): Shelby can help stop the run with his power, but rookie first-round pick Takk McKinley, if healthy (shoulder), will be out there in the nickel.

Defensive tackle (Dontari Poe): The two-time Pro Bowler signed a one-year, $8 million contract that included a workout bonus based on meeting weight, so he'll have to be at 330 pounds or less during the season.

Defensive tackle (Grady Jarrett): Coming off a three-sack showing in the Super Bowl, Jarrett could emerge as the most dominant player along the defensive line.

Weakside linebacker (Duke Riley): The rookie third-round pick from LSU has speed and leadership qualities that will make him hard to keep off the field.

Middle linebacker (Deion Jones): Jones had a sensational rookie season and learned the importance of having a stronger voice to help orchestrate the defense.

Strongside linebacker (De'Vondre Campbell): Campbell has the size, length and speed to make an impact, particularly when covering tight ends, but he needs to know how to be in the right place.

Cornerback (Desmond Trufant): The one-time Pro Bowler played in just nine games last season before undergoing pectoral surgery, but Trufant has worked hard to get back to an elite level.

Cornerback (Robert Alford): Although Alford will make flash plays with his speed and outstanding athleticism, he still needs to clean up some things and be more disciplined with his approach.

Strong safety (Keanu Neal): The hard-hitting Neal is the guy the Falcons view as Kam Chancellor in this system. Now he needs to show that he can cover consistently when called upon.

Free safety (Ricardo Allen): Allen might be the most under-appreciated player on the team, with his ability to get everyone aligned in the right spots and his knack for picking up on offensive plays before they occur.

Special teams

Kicker (Matt Bryant): The 42-year-old veteran was named to the Pro Bowl as the NFL's leading scorer last season, with 158 points, and he made all nine of his field goals between 40 and 49 yards.

Punter (Matt Bosher): Bosher had a net average of 41.6 yards last season and 21 kicks downed inside the 20.

Long-snapper (Josh Harris): Harris continues to do his job well and isn't afraid to hit someone as part of the coverage team.