The Atlanta Falcons just capped a disappointing 6-10 season, but as is the case with every sewage-infested coal pit, there's a couple of diamonds in there. If we're lucky, one or two of those diamonds will come from this rookie class.
Jake Matthews, LT, 13 starts
In many ways, Matthews fell prey to the struggles that plague first-year tackles. He suffered an injury early and missed some time, he struggled with potent edge rushers and he was far from a dominant run blocker. For those of us hoping Matthews would be the outlier, well, no luck.
That said, Matthews showed improvement throughout the season and some of the technical ability that made him the #6 overall pick in the draft. He handled the transition from left tackle in college to right tackle and then back to left tackle after Sam Baker was injured with aplomb, providing a relatively stable presence in the second half of the season when the Falcons sorely needed one.
Matthews wasn't perfect, and I'm going to see more before I anoint him as a future great left tackle. He has the talent and early returns to suggest he'll be a good one, however, and thus we'll give him a solid grade for his season.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT/DE, 16 games, 16 tackles, 1 sack
Hageman was never going to be an impact defender in his first year. He was drafted as a bit of a project, someone who could help out in the rotation right away and hopefully be counted on in 2015 and beyond as a foundational piece of the defensive line. Everything lined up that way in 2014.
Hageman had to fight for snaps all season long, and early in the year he wasn't all that productive with the ones he received. Later on, however, Hageman began to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, make stops against the run and generally wreak havoc against linemen who couldn't handle his off-the-charts power.
As is the case with Matthews, we can't go into 2015 thinking Hageman is going to be a great player, but he has the tools and his late-season production suggests he can be a force with more snaps. I'm very high on his potential, even if this year wound up being so-so due to the slow start and lack of snaps.
Dezmen Southward, S, 16 games, 23 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 2 pass deflections
Stats rarely tell the whole story with a player, and that's true with Southward, as well. He did most of his damage in limited snaps, and what really stood out for Southward was his coverage ability, something that was in question coming out of Wisconsin.
Southward was supposed to a high-upside project like Hageman, but he looked more polished than expected almost immediately. He was a valuable special teams contributor throughout much of the season, and when injuries struck late, he started to get in the games, make a few plays and provide better coverage than turnover machine Kemal Ishmael, a man who was eye-opening in his own right. Southward is not a finished product, but his 2014 was as good as any rookie not named Jake Matthews.
The Falcons may well bring back Dwight Lowery, which would leave Southward fighting for a job. Even if he's only the third safety for this defense in 2014, however, I think he's got a bright future.
Devonta Freeman, RB, 16 games, 65 carries, 248 yards, 1 touchdown, 30 catches, 225 yards, 1 touchdown
We all had hoped Freeman would be able to wrest control of the starting job away from Steven Jackson, but it never happened. It's hard to know how much of that to hang on pass protection issues versus the coaching staff's decision-making, but either way, it wasn't the rookie season I'm sure Freeman hoped for.
That said, he showed signs of being a well-rounded, decisive back with quality hands. The Falcons are unlikely to make him a true workhorse back, but he could be the lead horse in a committee going forward, and I didn't see anything from Freeman that indicated to me he shouldn't get first crack at the job. With better blocking up front, an offseason of development and potentially a new offensive coordinator, he could make real noise in 2015.
It helps that no one else is under contract besides Steven Jackson, who is probably getting the axe sometime this offseason.
Prince Shembo, LB, 16 games, 4 starts, 65 tackles
Shembo was kind of all over the map. The Falcons initially had him as an outside linebacker, wound up moving him inside and saw him deliver on precisely none of the pass rushing promise he carried coming out of Notre Dame. He was a sure enough tackler and a valuable special teamer when he was on the field, but he couldn't take the job away from Joplo Bartu and didn't really start to get significant snaps until late in the season. Consider the state of the depth chart again and you understand why that's not a great sign for a guy I liked heading into the year.
The Falcons aren't exactly deep at linebacker, Shembo was reasonably productive and there's possibly untapped potential as a pass rusher here, so this shouldn't be taken as a dismissal of his chances to contribute going forward.
Marquis Spruill, LB, tore ACL in preseason
Spruill, who projected as a promising reserve and special teamer in his rookie season, saw his entire season erased by injury. He'll come back and try to contribute in 2015.
Ricardo Allen, CB, zero games
Allen has quality tools and will head into 2015 without a ton of competition, given that Josh Wilson, Robert McClain and Javier Arenas are all on expiring deals and didn't exactly win huge new contracts this last season. Unfortunately for him, he fell victim to a crowded cornerback depth chart in 2014 and never got on the field for the Falcons, spending most of the year on the practice squad. There's promise here, though.
Tyler Starr, DE/LB, zero games
Remarkably, Starr spent the entire season on the roster, but was inactive for every single game. This was a source of ongoing frustration for Falcons fans.
Starr has real athletic ability, but he fell to the seventh round largely because he was from a finished product and wasn't particularly strong, something I saw repeatedly during my short time at training camp over the summer. In a class where upside and potential were the buzzwords, Starr has enough of both to warrant the redshirt year. The question is whether he'll be able to deliver on that promise.
James Stone, C, 12 games, 9 starts
Stone wasn't drafted, but he wound up making a bigger contribution to the team than most of the drafted rookie class. Kept around as a third center by the Falcons coming out of training camp, Stone saw Joe Hawley and Peter Konz go down in front of him, forcing him into the lineup.
It was an uneven rookie campaign for Stone, but he exceeded even my loftiest expectations for an undrafted free agent rookie, mixing in some quality games with a handful of lousy ones. I'm not sure Stone's a long-term starter for the Falcons, but he should be on the roster in 2015, and he should be competing for that job if the Falcons don't add more talent to the position before Joe Hawley's contract expires in 2016. He took a tough situation and ran with it.
When I look at this class in totality, I see a group with legitimate talent, but a number of question marks. Matthews, Hageman, Southward, Shembo, Freeman and Starr all need development, and not one of these guys stood out as a potentially elite player in 2014. That's troubling given how heavily Dimitroff and Scott Pioli concentrated on defense here, but the good news is that many of these players are in line for larger opportunities in 2015. I anticipate this will go down as one of the better draft classes of the last several seasons, but that's heavily contingent on Matthews and Hageman in particular taking a step forward next season.
Your thoughts on this rookie class and their potential impact in 2015 and beyond?