If you think we've been asking a lot of big, sweeping questions of late, you'd be right. This is the time to ask them, before practices and games start in earnest and we get all the evidence we need to answer them.
Today's question is this: Will player development be a noticeably improved part of what the Falcons do in 2015 and beyond? This is a particularly critical question because of the implications for the team's long-term success, and how player development was only sporadically effective under the Mike Smith regime. For all the things Smitty and company did well—and there were many—relatively few young players showed strong year-over-year improvement, especially on the defense.
The team's biggest success stories up to this point have been Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Joe Hawley, Kroy Biermann (yes, really), Paul Worrilow, Desmond Trufant and William Moore, and those are still core players for this Falcons team. That's a relatively short list, however, and players with real promise like Jonathan Massaquoi, Lamar Holmes and Levine Toilolo simply weren't able to make tangible gains under Smith and company. It's fair to say that has to change, or the Falcons are going to be purging a lot of unproductive players from their roster a year from now.
We have to hope that changes under Dan Quinn and his new, sprawling coaching staff. The Falcons invested their draft capital into some really exciting young players who need roles on the defense and nurturing to become the kind of franchise greats Atlanta so sorely needs. You need players with drive, tremendous work ethics and real skill to make the leap, and no amount of coaching or development will make up for the absence of that. Yet a good coaching staff can coax new heights out of players, as I think we'd all agree, and Quinn and company have said all the right things so far. We just need to see those words translate to improvement on the field.
You won't necessarily see the fruits of the team's labor in the first year, but watch second-year players like Jake Matthews, Ra'Shede Hageman and Prince Shembo this year. Their development or lack thereof may give us a sense of just how effective this new coaching staff will be in helping its young potential stars take the next step.