Ready for some football?
The preseason officially arrives with Thursday's Hall of Fame Game between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons in Canton, Ohio. After beginning training camp a week early, the two teams have the honor of ushering in the NFL's 100th season on the playing field. The celebration continues into the weekend as the late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, cornerback Champ Bailey and tight end Tony Gonzalez will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame.
For now, we have five storylines to watch in the annual preseason opener. Game on.
1. Drew Lock
The Broncos' second-round pick isn't starting Thursday -- that distinction belongs to Kevin Hogan -- but with Joe Flacco sitting this one out, Lock should see plenty of reps in his NFL debut. Just two weeks ago, Vic Fangio said Lock was "not a quarterback yet -- he's a hard-throwing pitcher that doesn't know how to pitch yet." Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Fangio's assessment means it's unlikely Lock succeeds Flacco anytime soon. But that makes his preseason snaps all the more important.
The Broncos have been trying (and failing) to identify a franchise QB to replace Peyton Manning since 2016, cycling through the likes of Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Case Keenum. Their eggs are now in multiple baskets, after trading for the 34-year-old Flacco and drafting Lock in the same offseason. We could find out in the next few weeks whether the latter has the higher ceiling and should be viewed as the future face of the franchise.
2. Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator
This isn't the first time Quinn will be calling defensive plays for the Falcons. The fifth-year head coach took over such duties late in the 2016 season as Atlanta was making its Super Bowl run. But he enters the 2019 season feeling some heat after the Falcons missed the playoffs last year while their defense ranked near the bottom in nearly every major statistical category. Accordingly, Quinn replaced DC Marquand Manuel with himself, marking the first time he's held this title since helping guide the Seahawks to consecutive Super Bowls (2013-14).
Quinn isn't taking any chances after the franchise fell short of the postseason for the fourth time in six years. Two of those weren't on his watch, but the last time the Falcons didn't reach the playoffs in consecutive years, general manager Thomas Dimitroff made a coaching change. Atlanta, of course, played all or most of the season without key starters Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal and Grady Jarrett. The quartet is now healthy, though don't expect to see much from them in this game. But it will be a good opportunity to see the Falcons' Cover 3 solely directed by Quinn.
3. Vic Fangio's head coaching debut
He's been working 40 years for this. When just about every NFL team in the market for a new coach zigged last winter, the Broncos zagged. Not only is the 60-year-old Fangio defensive-minded, he's a senior citizen. But don't take his age for weakness. The former Bears DC just got done guiding one of the best defenses in the NFL, as he is wont to do. Now he finally gets to run the whole show.
As we await to find out how big of a role he'll assume with the offense, keep in mind that the Broncos passed on a reunion with Gary Kubiak this offseason in favor of Rich Scangarello, who's never been an NFL OC and only done it at lower levels in college. (Incidentally, Scangarello spent a year with the Falcons as a quality control coach under Quinn). The move portends to Fangio wanting more influence, which makes sense when you consider how long it took him to reach this point. There's also real urgency to maximize Denver's veteran talent across the roster. After Vance Joseph's disappointing two-year stint, Fangio isn't being brought in to rebuild one of the league's prouder franchises. The Broncos perpetually exist in win-now mode.
4. Pon de replay
The new pass interference rules are only guaranteed to be in effect for this season, so every 2019 game counts. After working through a few different iterations in the spring, the rules were finalized in June. To recap, offensive and defensive pass interference can be reviewed in the final two minutes by the replay official, while coaches can challenge interference plays in all other parts of regulation. Moreover, there will be stricter criteria to replay interference in an effort to limit excessive stoppages. As is the standard for all reviews, calls will only be reversed when there is "clear and obvious visual evidence."
Will this lead to teams taking more chances down the field before halftime or at the end of games? Or in general? How will defensive players respond? Will the new rules impact the way officials call pass interference in real time? Thursday won't feature the intensity of a regular-season game, much less the NFC title game (sorry, Saints), but it could be the beginning of a paradigm shift for all involved. A year ago, we saw the new helmet rule seemingly over-penalized in the preseason before a market correction eventually ensued.
5. Who's got skills?
Lock isn't the lone potentially pivotal piece of the Broncos' offensive future that will be on display. With most starters for both teams on both sides of the ball sitting this one out, second-year skill players Courtland Sutton and Royce Freeman and rookie tight end Noah Fant could get some good run. Fant has consistently impressed since Denver drafted him with the No. 20 overall pick in April and is already pushing for a starting job. Meanwhile, Freeman has to make the most of his opportunities when Phillip Lindsay is watching. After falling behind the undrafted rookie last year, Freeman rushed for 521 yards (on 4.0 yards per carry) and five touchdowns.
Sutton could also steal a brighter spotlight following a promising rookie season (42 catches 704 yards, four touchdowns). The Broncos are going to be cautious with Emmanuel Sanders as he works his way back from an Achilles injury, while fellow sophomore wideout DaeSean Hamilton has been ruled out for the preseason opener because of a balky hamstring. Perhaps it opens the door for Sutton to begin establishing himself as the team's top receiver. (If we're lucky, he'll be defended by Falcons rookie cornerback Kendall Sheffield at some point Thursday.) Broncos WR Tim Patrick, who made his NFL debut last season after going undrafted in 2017, is worth monitoring as well.