NFL: What we learned from the 2019 Hall of Fame game

Football is back. None of it matters right now, though.

Thank god the wait is over. After four months without football (yes, four since the debunked AAF gave us at eight extra weeks), the sport so many love made a long-awaited return to primetime Thursday evening. With the 2019 Hall of Fame class set to be inducted into Canton, the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons kicked off the weekend with the first preseason game of the year.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t pretty.

Now while the Broncos picked up the 14-10 victory, does that mean anything? Is Atlanta a better team than Denver? Probably but watching four quarters without a majority of starters isn’t going to help solidify that answer. Still, fans tuned in to view the game return to our television screens for the next 26 weeks.

Training camp is all about finding the best 53 players to place on your roster. And while most starters are set, several roles still are going to be up for grabs when talking about depth. Both Denver and Atlanta found players who could be factors this season should they continue to produce. They also could have some concerns when addressing several positions.

Let’s recap what we learned in a pointless game that no one will be talking about after their morning coffee.

Garett Bolles – what are you doing out there, buddy?

As mentioned, most starters on both squads did not suit up in Canton for the first game of the season. Players who are likely going to see significant time this season probably aren’t suiting up. That wasn’t the case for the Broncos offensive line as three potential starters saw action. And while rookie Dalton Risner was going to see some work in his first game, why was Garett Bolles out there?

The former first-round pick has been inconsistent since being drafted out of Utah in 2017. In Thursday’s action, he looked pretty solid in the two drives, finishing his night without a penalty. Last season, the 27-year-old tackle led the team with offensive penalties and sacks allowed.

“Right now Garett is the starter, and somebody has to knock him out somewhat like a heavyweight champion,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said earlier this week. “So far he’s had a great camp, so if we were to play today against Oakland, he would be the starter hands down.”

Bolles probably played since new offensive line coach Mike Munchak wanted to see what he has to work with. And he impressed… against mostly third-string players. It’s great the Broncos see a stronger outing from their left tackle, but also a little unsettling he was out there.

Let’s see if he continue to impress in week three of the preseason when a majority of starters will suit up.

All aboard the Brian Hill express

The Falcons are going to need a second running back following the departure of Tevin Coleman. Ito Smith seemed to be the top target after being drafted by the team last season in preparation for Coleman’s departure. Maybe he’ll see his role expand later this preseason, but Brian Hill was the top back for the Falcons Thursday evening.

Drafted in the fifth round back in 2017, Hill bounced back and forth from Atlanta and the Cincinnati Bengals during his rookie season. Last season, he began the year on the practice before being raised to the active roster in early September. He finished Thursday’s outing with a team-high 57 yards on 11 carries.

But the real story was Hill’s ability to be effective in the passing game. During the second quarter, Kurt Benkert delivered a strike to the Wyoming product in the corner of the end zone for a one-yard score. And Hill’s ping-pong celebration probably was the highlight of the evening.

The race to back up Devonta Freeman is wide open. Hill’s successful night has started to close the gap. Sure, he’s far from an elite running back. But after a stint on the practice squad, it was nice to see him finally show the promise he displayed during his time in Wyoming.

Is Drew Lock John Elway 2.0?

John Elway has always seemed to have trouble at his former position. The Hall of Fame quarterback lucked into bringing Peyton Manning to Mile High City but has never found that long-term franchise guy. Trevor Siemian? Paxton Lynch? Case Keenum? Oof.

But perhaps things will change with the selection of Drew Lock. Reports stated that Elway was “smitten” with the former Missouri quarterback’s potential throughout the 2019 draft process. Who knows? Perhaps Lock could be the next Elway for Denver? He indeed started his career out similar to Broncos’ GM on Thursday.

For those who don’t get the reference, Elway was horrible during his rookie season back in 1983. Through 11 games, the future Canton alum would have a completion rating of 47.5% along with 7 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Lock entered the game in the second quarter and finished the evening going 7 of 11 for 34 yards. Consistently overshooting his targets and never able to find a rhythm, it was a growing experience for the second round gunslinger.

Several throws ended in drops while a pair of passes could have been caught if not for pass interference calls. Lock has the arm strength and the ability to make the deep pass downfield, but his accuracy is going to be a problem. Until he corrects it, expect Joe Flacco to be sitting comfortably as QB1 heading in September.

Chris Lindstrom is the real deal

Even if you are a projected starter, rookies probably were going to see a series or two up in Canton. The Falcons proved that statement by sending out 2019 first-round pick Chris Lindstrom with the “first-team” offense Thursday evening. The Boston College product was highly regarded for his ability to succeed in the run blocking.

Guess what? He didn’t disappoint.

Working his way upfield to the second-level of the defense, Lindstrom showed his ability to be an effective run stopper up the middle. Sure, it’s a preseason game, but the 14th overall pick looked to be the top guy on the Falcons’ offensive line during his two series.

Anything can happen from now until week one, but Lindstrom should be getting ready to block for Matt Ryan. He looked like a starter Thursday evening.

Remember the name

With training camp being a time for players to earn a role, anyone can step up early. One player for both Denver and Atlanta boosted their roster stock with impressive outings early on. Now it might be early to place them on the active roster, but Broncos’ defender Malik Reed and Falcons’ defensive lineman John Cominsky are names to remember.

Undrafted out Nevada, Reed made his presence felt early in Atlanta’s backfield. During the second quarter, the undersized linebacker showed superb speed off the edge to deliver a sack of Benkert for an eight-yard loss. He’d finish the outing with four total stops on the evening.

Cominsky led the Falcons with six total tackles and also picked up a sack on Lock in the second quarter. The Charleston product also caught people’s buzz after recovering a fumble on muffed by Broncos’ wide receiver Brendan Langley in the first quarter.

All it takes is a few strong plays in the preseason to help a player boost their status when it comes down to trimming the roster. Both Reed and Cominsky play positions that are a need for their respective rosters. It’s early but keep them on a shortlist of bubble roster players. They’ve earned some respect following a strong performance.

None of this matters

Can we all agree it’s better to live in a world with football rather than sitting at home while twiddling our thumbs? Even preseason football can be exciting at times when trying to find the next excellent roster addition. But the Hall of Fame game has to be one of the more boring events in the game altogether.

Starters don’t play, players are rusty and more often than not, we turn off the game or check our phones by halftime. It’s nice to have back the sport, but this doesn’t matter. The Falcons aren’t going to be without Julio Jones all preseason while Denver is going to sit Von Miller.

Let’s all agree we’re happy football has returned and won’t be going away soon. Let’s also agree if you missed Thursday’s action, you didn’t miss much.

What a class

There’s a reason people are up in Canton for the weekend, and it’s not for the game. This weekend, the Hall of Fame will welcome a new crop of players and executives through their doors and bring them in football immortality.

And boy, this is a Hall of Fame class people are going to remember. Eight new faces will enter Canton on Sunday afternoon, each with their own story of greatness. We talk about Hall of Fame classes being exceptional, and the 2019 class should be included in that category.

Some consider Ed Reed as the greatest safety of his generation. They wouldn’t be wrong as the five-time first-team All-Pro was a focal point of the Baltimore Ravens defense following an impressive career at Miami. He’s joined by Ty Law and Champ Bailey, two of the game’s premier cornerbacks during the late 90s and early 2000s. Bailey leads the NFL with 142 career pass deflections and was a 12-time Pro Bowler. Law was crucial to the New England Patriots’ success on defense early on in Tom Brady‘s career.

Then you have Tony Gonzalez, one of football’s top tight ends. Through his illustrious 16 year career, the former Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons pass catcher collected over 1,300 receptions and 111 touchdowns, the most in NFL history at the position. Kevin Mawae was a crucial factor in helping running backs rush for 1,000-yard seasons while Johnny Robinson played both sides of the ball in the ’60s for the Chiefs.

Throw in one football’s greatest owners in Pat Bowlen and the G.O.A.T. scout Gil Brandt, you have a great Hall of Fame class. Tune in Sunday for their speeches. It’s going to be a date football fans won’t want to miss.

Cole Thompson is the Lead NFL writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @MrColeThompson

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