Training camp will give us a better feel for the Falcons' 2015 rookie class, of course, but it's necessary to temper our expectations for a legitimately exciting rookie class.
It's a tough line to walk, because none of us want to downplay the potential impact of guys like Vic Beasley and Tevin Coleman, but we do have to acknowledge that it's exceedingly rare that your entire rookie class takes the league by storm and launches your team into the stratosphere. Ahead of the practices, preseason games and accompanying hype, let's take a look at what we might reasonably expect for each member of the class.
The team will take pains to utilize Beasley in an effective way, and they may limit his playing time on obvious running downs, given that it's his most significant weakness coming into his rookie year. Make no mistake, though: Beasley is going to play, and the success of the pass rush is going to be heavily dependent on his ability to get after the quarterback.
It's reasonable, I think, to expect Beasley to start 12-14 games (I'm overly cautious, sue me), and given his obvious talent I think 6-8 sacks are virtually a given. More important than the raw sack total, though, is his efficiency in rushing the passer and ability to disrupt plays, and Beasley has the potential to deliver in both areas without breaking a sweat. He's the obvious choice for team rookie of the year, a potential ROtY candidate in the NFL and should emerge as one of the best players on the team right away. I'm very bullish on Beasley, obviously, and I think it's reasonable to expect good things from him right off the bat.
He should be healthy enough to participate in camp, which is good news for both Collins and the team. His role is a little less certain.
Given his size, talent and draft status, Collins should be the favorite to start opposite Desmond Trufant in Week 1. It's worth noting, though, that Collins started just 10 games at LSU, has been dinged for a lack of technique and has the dreaded "doesn't track the ball well" label following him from college, so there's no guarantees he's going to be an impact cornerback on day one. He also has to hold off Robert Alford, a legitimately electric athlete who is coming into his third year in the league.
For all that, though, Collins is a potentially terrific fit for Dan Quinn's preferred press cover scheme, and he's a quality athlete and by all accounts an adaptable guy. Pencil him in for at least half of a starting season, a couple of picks, a couple of coverage hiccups and a few sterling plays along the way. He should be much better over the long haul than in his rookie season, but I like his chances of contributing for a defense that doesn't have the protoype press corner the coaching staff would love to have.
He's a legitimate speed demon who can handle contact, and Kyle Shanahan and company clearly like his chances to contribute in the ground game. I think expecting Coleman to pick up 700-plus yards, 4-6 touchdowns and a couple dozen receptions is perfectly reasonable, and the only real question is whether he'll emerge into a full-time starter's role that allows him to do more than that. His yards per carry will help to tell the tale, as well as the health and effectiveness of the offensive line, given that Coleman's strength is finding a hole and taking off to the sounds of Chariots of Fire.
My gut says no. Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith will need touches, Freeman is the better blocker and pass catcher as it stands today, and Coleman will need to prove he can muscle his way through short yardage situations to stay on the field in scenarios where a powerful back is needed. Like Collins, his promise makes him an intriguing piece of the Falcons' future, but he's not likely to be a standout player managing 250 touches in year one.
Here's a legitimate hype candidate. Leonard Hankerson is going to be a useful receiver, Jacob Tamme is a step up at tight end and the Falcons have Julio Jones and Roddy White around, so there wouldn't seem to be a ton of receptions left for Hardy. Yet I do honestly believe that Hardy is going to have the kind of rookie season that turns heads.
Why? His willingness to fight over the middle, his sure hands and his crisp route running are all fairly unusual for a rookie fourth round receiver, and the team sorely needs reliable targets for Matt Ryan, particularly on short routes. There's a good chance that Hardy eats underneath as the slot receiver, in which case I think 50-plus receptions, 600-700 yards and 3-4 touchdowns are all reasonable expectations for the first-year receiver. Those numbers don't jump off the page at you, but given the crowded situation in the team's receiving corps, it would make for a fine season. If he's a more reliable option than Harry Douglas, which I think is within reach, it will both benefit the entire offense and earn Hardy some notice.
He's the most likely candidate to disappoint for reasons entirely outside of his control. The Falcons aren't loaded up with great defensive tackles, but they have solid options across the board, and Jarrett will have to really impress early to earn significant snaps as part of the rotation. No one doubts his talent and he could be one of the most effective interior pass rushers on the team right away, but that may not be enough to get him more than a third down role.
Keep in mind that Jonathan Babineaux is still a reliable three down player, Ra'Shede Hageman looks poised for a breakout and Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson have a history of serving as effective run stoppers and you can see why Jarrett may get shoved aside in his first year. Jarrett won't be bench-bound, of course, but he may need an injury or Tyson Jackson release to get a real opportunity.
Look for Jarrett to make a real splash in 2016 and beyond, but he's likely a role player to a part-time starter this year.
A true project, the athletic Rodgers could be at least a useful reserve lineman down the line, but he'll be lucky to make the final roster outright in 2015. The team's tackle situation is a little shaky and he could latch on as a gameday inactive, but if he's on the field, something's gone horribly awry.
The practice squad is the most likely spot for Rodgers.
King offers you intriguing size and athleticism, and if he can learn on the job quickly, he's a candidate to be a valuable reserve cornerback or safety in the Falcons defense of the future. Like Rogers, though, he's a bit of a project and shouldn't be considered more than a deep reserve if he makes the roster.
The best you can expect for any of these players out of the gate is a practice squad spot and a chance to contribute if injuries or ineffectiveness strike Atlanta. Beyond that, I'd avoid falling into the now familiar trap of getting way too excited about an undrafted guy who gets cut or buried before August is up.
What are your expectations for the rookie class?