All season we’ve heard the TV pundits repeat their obligatory line that Dan Quinn is molding Atlanta’s defense in the form of his former Seahawks defense, that Keanu Neal is our Kam Chancellor, blah blah blah. And of course we’ll hear it all over again during the Superbowl and the pregame shows.
There’s one other striking feature of this Falcons roster that has escaped the media’s attention, probably because it would actually require them to pay attention - putting it way beyond the skill set of the average TV “analyst.”
You heard about it when the Seahawks were on their 2013-2014 run, though. Specifically, they had a lot of major contributors who were not acquired as high draft picks or major free agents. You often hear that sort of thing about the Patriots as well - how Bill Belichick is so effective in using players unwanted by other clubs.
The Falcons had their share of those players when Dimitroff and Mike Smith first arrived. Brent Grimes and Eric Weems had both been on our 2007 practice squad. Todd McClure was originally a seventh round draft pick. Tyson Clabo had come up from our practice squad. McKay plucked Harvey Dahl from San Francisco’s practice squad. Chris Redman had been out of the NFL. Stephen Nicholas was a fourth round pick. Michael Boley was a fifth rounder. Jason Snelling was a seventh. Michael Koenen was an undrafted prospect from a Division II school that soon gave up playing football.
That pipeline seemed to dry up over time, largely due to injuries and other mishaps. There were a few contributors along the way, such as UDFA Michael Palmer, free agent prospects Robert McClain and Will Svitek, fifth rounder Kroy Biermann and seventh rounder Vance Walker. But more often than not, things went south with those prospects.
Between the additions to the scouting department and the coaching staff’s emphasis on development, Atlanta has found a feast among the fringes. Ten of Atlanta’s 22 starting players against Green Bay (as listed in the NFL’s game book for the NFC Championship Game) were selected on the final day of the draft, signed as undrafted rookie prospects, were “street” level free agents or were otherwise unwanted by other teams.
That’s ten of last weekend’s STARTERS, not just ten players. If Rudolph landed in Flowery Branch, these Falcons would welcome him to The Brotherhood Of Misfit Toys.
Andy Levitre was unwanted by the Titans, who ate $6.3 million in dead cap space just to unload him. The Falcons picked him up for a pair of late draft picks. (And if you missed the story, his wife Katie is the ultimate badass.)
Chris Chester had been released by the Redskins in May of 2015 before coming to Atlanta to rejoin his former OC. Immediately to his right, Ryan Schraeder was an undrafted free agent. Devonta Freeman was a fourth round pick. Levine Toilolo was a compensatory draft pick at the end of round four.
On defense, Dwight Freeney went unsigned in free agency until the Falcons finally scooped him up in August. De’Vondre Campbell was a fourth rounder - and widely regarded by the media as a reach even then. Grady Jarrett was a fifth rounder. Ricardo Allen was a fifth rounder who spent his rookie year on the practice squad - where any team could have plucked him away. Brian Poole was an undrafted free agent.
And those are just the players that the NFL listed as our starters against Green Bay.
After the Browns drafted five (???) wide receivers in the 2016 draft, they couldn’t make room for Taylor Gabriel on their roster. The Falcons happily claimed the speedster off of waivers. He exploded during the second half of the season, finishing with 6 touchdown receptions to tie Julio Jones for the team lead.
“Pancake” Patrick DiMarco had been waived by Kansas City in 2013 when the Falcons signed him. He was on our practice squad when Bradie Ewing suffered his second consecutive season-ending injury. He went on to last year’s Pro Bowl and was named as an alternate this year (but obviously won’t be appearing in this year’s game).
Aldrick Robinson was the ultimate unwanted player - the former Redskins receiver had been out of the NFL entirely in 2015 before the Falcons signed him to a one year deal for the 2016 season. Fellow backup receiver Justin Hardy was a fourth round selection. Swing tackle Tom Compton wasn’t tendered by Washington this year. Backup center/defensive tackle Ben Garland landed on Atlanta’s practice squad last year after being released by the Broncos. Inactive line prospect Wes Schweitzer was a sixth round pick.
Among the defensive players in rotation, Philip Wheeler had been released by the 49ers in 2015, with the Falcons scooping him off the street that October. Paul Worrilow was an undrafted free agent. C.J. Goodwin landed on our practice squad after being released by Pittsburgh. Sharrod Neasman went undrafted. Dashon Goldson was yet another player let go by the Redskins. Deji Olatoye had been released by the Ravens, Chiefs and Cowboys before finding a home on Atlanta’s practice squad early this season and joining the roster in November.
And Joe Vellano may have some extra motivation for these next two weeks. In September he was released by the Patriots. The Falcons called him up from the practice squad just last week to replace Adrian Clayborn on the roster, and they helped him get up to speed by playing him for 18 snaps on defense against Green Bay.
There are even more waiting in the wings. Nick Williams came up from the practice squad and immediately reminded everyone of his potential impact, racking up four receptions in a mere seven snaps. Seventh rounder Devin Fuller will be in the hunt for the PR/KR role when he returns from IR. Injured defensive backs Kemal Ishmael and Akeem King have already become contributors on defense. Both were seventh rounders. Practice squad call-up Josh Keyes will be in the hunt for a linebacker spot next season along with injured seventh rounder Tyler Starr.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has long emphasized the importance of system fit. A prospect may be a good player, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he would be a good player for the Falcons. Now we’re seeing that the converse is also true: players who were overlooked or unwanted by other teams can have a major impact in Atlanta.
One man gathers what another man spills...