The rise of the Atlanta Falcons is one that has taken just about everyone by surprise. The team is stacked with undeniable talent, but the rawness of youth should have held them back for a year. In the most unbelievable of turns, the Falcons have turned this lack of experience into a positive. By playing without the fear of failing to meet expectation for most of the season. The result? Winning the NFC Conference, and booking a trip to Super Bowl LI. Again, we are surprised.
Credit can be lain at the door steps of a few key men. For one, moving on from a regime that spanned 7 seasons isn’t easy, especially when it had brought so much hope early on. However, Arthur Blank, Falcons owner, took the decision to fire one Mike Smith, and replace him with the defensive mind that got the most out of the Legion of Boom: Dan Quinn. Dan Quinn, of course, has overseen two seasons of progression on both sides of the ball, with the defence coming together in an exciting manner, and the offense tearing up the history books. The Quinn era is off to a blinder, and a lot of that can be put down to fantastic coaching.
Something that must be taken into account is the sheer talent levels, however. Since 2014, the Falcons have kept 23 of the 64 players that ended that particular season in Red and Black. That’s a huge change in personnel over two years. The men behind this turnover of talent? The combined efforts of Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli.
Goes together like a horse and carriage…
Dimitroff has been the General Manager of the Falcons since the 2008 season, and, in large part, is the reason this team is as relevant as it is today. The man is the reason behind the Matt Ryan draft in ‘08, and Tony Gonzalez trade in ‘09, and the Julio Jones trade up in ‘11. Some questionable moves in free agency, and more than a few dud draft picks put a few question marks over his head. However, for the most part, he’s been pretty much on the money.
Scott Pioli, in comparison, has only been part of the Falcons set up since 2014. Pioli made his name as the General Manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, a venture that ended somewhat poorly. Dimitroff and Pioli worked together in the New England back office, and took over two ailing franchises looking for the consistency of the, at the time of writing, four time NFL Champions. With mixed results.
The Falcons have sought to maximise the talents of the two personnel moguls. Both men work in tandem regarding scouting and cap space, with Dan Quinn granted final say over the 53 man roster, the side is looking a whole lot healthier than it did a few years back. In large part, this is a product of the players brought in through the draft. And since Pioli signed up alongside Dimitroff, drafting has been exceptional.
The Class of 2014
The first class of the Dimitroff/Pioli era is one that’ll, likely, be looked back on as the weakest of the three thus far. While key talent is there, with no less than three starters being found from the first five rounds, just over half the class is either out of the league, or on various practice squads.
The hits have been hits, though. Jake Matthews has settled into his role as the sides Left Tackle, playing at a level many would consider above average. The same with Ricardo Allen, taken in the fifth round. The Cornerback-cum-Safety convert, while not outstanding, is certainly serviceable at an NFL level, and has proven his worth in the Quinn era, coming up with some big plays at opportune moments. He’s quite good, is what I’m saying.
Tyler Starr remains a project, having spent much of his time as a Falcon on the Practice Squad. However he’s not been cut outright since being signed in the seventh, so that’s something. Additionally, Ra’Shede Hageman, currently in the final season of his contact, may now be on the roster next season, however he’s shown flashes on occasion. See the boot-sack on Rodgers, for example.
Ground and Pound
The real star of the 2014 class, however, is Devonta Freeman. In his third season, the Florida State back has notched up two 1000+ yard seasons, 29 touchdowns, and established a reputation as one of fantasy footballs most valuable options. How the man fell to the third round is baffling. How he only commanded 65 attempts in his rookie year is utterly ludicrous.
2014 was a class that offered hope. After the mess that was the 2013 season, Falcons fans needed evidence that it was a one time thing, and the class of 2014 has proven to yield more hits than misses. The 2014 season ended with a blowout loss to the Panthers, eliminating the Falcons from play-off contention. The coaching changes took place, and the Dan Quinn-era began on the right foot.
The Class of 2015
The success of 2015 has vindicated Blank’s decision to keep Dimitroff on board, and then some. There were needs all over the park coming off the back of such a crushingly disappointing season, however many were met here. Of the seven picks Atlanta had, six remain on the roster, and five either start, or receive meaningful snaps.
Atlanta spent their first rounder on Vic Beasley Jr; a Falcons fan with a knack for dropping the Quarterback. While he struggled in his first season, Beastley has flourished in his second, finishing the season as the league leader in sacks. Beasley has offered everything required from him as an edge-rusher, and is now seeing offensive lines try to contain him with double teams, but this will be just another hurdle for the all-pro defensive lineman to clear in his continued development.
Improvement in the second season
With the second and third rounds, Atlanta selected Jalen Collins, Corner, and Tevin Coleman, Running Back. Collins was seen as a project, but has managed to mould himself into an above-average corner, especially this season. As Desmond Trufant fell to injury, Collins was moved into the CB2 spot, and has looked genuinely good. How exciting this secondary will look when Trufant returns from injury.
Coleman is a different story. His first season was plagued with fumbles and drops, with some explosive downfield runs sprinkled here and there. His potential was outstanding, but he needed to improve his hands exponentially. He spent the off season doing such. And now he’s one half of the most fearsome running back pairing in the league today. A true double-threat, picking up yards on the ground and through the air, Coleman has been something of a game-breaker for Matt Ryan to exploit at whim.
Finding value in the later rounds
The remaining two picks in the 2015 draft class, Justin Hardy and Grady Jarrett, have also been incredibly useful. Hardy has proven himself to be something of a guaranteed completion for Ryan. The receiver seems to have the ability to catch everything throw his way no matter how difficult. While he’s sat on the fourth place on the depth chart, Hardy is a valuable piece to the puzzle that is the Atlanta Falcons offense. Jarrett, also, has seen his duties increase since his drafting. The Clemson nose-tackle he may well come to be the steal of ‘15. Jarrett has the sheer power missing from the Falcons defensive line since prime-Babineaux, and has become an important starter for these Falcons. His future is very bright.
The Class of 2016
Unfortunately, after a 5-0 start, the Falcons fell into a hole so bleak it was unreal. 8-8 was the final record. It was a truly horrific end to a first season that offered much hope, and expectations hit a low. Dimitroff/Pioli needed another big draft to appease the growing disillusionment among the Falcons. There was a hitch, as there always is: they didn’t have a fifth round pick to play with, after being found guilty of piping fake crowd noise into the Georgia Dome in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Y’know. The bad ones. And they traded a sixth rounder for Andy Levitre the season previous. Every pick needed to be a hit. And so, with 6 picks, the Falcons needed to nail it. They did.
The class of ‘16 is only a season into its tenure in the league, so evaluations will be far briefer than previous classes.
In youth we trust
Four of those Six picks are starting every week. Keanu Neal was taken with the first round, and has a burgeoning reputation as the hardest hitting safety in the league. Quinn wanted his Kam Chancellor, and there’s a good chance he has him in Neal. Deion Jones, taken in the second, and De’Vondre Campbell, taken in the fourth, have proven to be more than reliable assets to these Falcons. Jones, in particular, has impressed. With three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, Jones has excelled in his first season. The speed of the middle linebacker has been most impressive in his first year, and, with the aforementioned Campbell, is expected to grow brilliantly into his role in his second season.
With the third pick, the Falcons picked Austin Hooper, a big-bodied, pass catching tight end. With Jacob Tamme in the final year of his contract, Atlanta looked to the next starting tight end. They seem to have found it in Hooper. Although he shares his snaps with Levine Toilolo often, the combination of the two have proven to be very difficult to manage for opposition defences. With Tamme not expected to return next season, he will see a larger share of the play moving forward.
The future looks pretty good, actually
From the ashes, Dimitroff and Pioli have found a beautiful phoenix. It’s not until you look at it on paper you realise how utterly impressive this period of drafting has been for Atlant. The previous three draft classes have set the Falcons up for success for years to come. There’s no reason to believe that the Falcons will fall off the cliff ala 2013, given how young the squad is. Unless something drastic happens (Scott Pioli following Shanahan to San Francisco, for example…), there’s plenty to suggest this trend could continue long into the future. So long as the Falcons get it right at draft level, success can follow.