Coming off a disappointing end to the 2016 season, the Atlanta Falcons knew they needed to continue to add talent to help an already excellent roster take the next step. The Falcons made several moves that could pay dividends in 2017: the addition of Pro Bowl DT Dontari Poe, the extensions of key players like CBs Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant along with RT Ryan Schraeder, and upgrading kick returner with WR Andre Roberts.
The team also made a concerted effort to address weaknesses via the draft. Atlanta used six selections on the likes of EDGE Takkarist McKinley, LB Duke Riley, G Sean Harlow, DB Damontae Kazee, RB Brian Hill, and TE Eric Saubert. The Falcons also added a plethora of UDFAs to the mix, including intriguing names like T Andreas Knappe, FS Marcelis Branch, and FB Tyler Renew.
While all of the Falcons’ rookies have potential, who among them has the best chance to contribute immediately in the 2017 season?
Most would likely assume a team’s first round selection (for Atlanta, Takkarist McKinley) would be the odds-on favorite to make the biggest impact. However, with McKinley’s offseason surgery and limited ability to take part in OTAs due to NFL rules, it’s possible he could have a bit of a delayed start to his NFL career.
Sean Harlow has an outside shot to make waves this season, as he’ll likely be competing for the now-vacant RG position with veteran jack-of-all-trades player Ben Garland and second-year converted tackle Wes Schweitzer. Still, Schweitzer appears to be the heavy favorite, and it’s unlikely that the rookie will beat out both of his competitors.
Players like Kazee, Hill, and Saubert all have high potential, but face the uphill battle of unseating established starters. Kazee has perhaps the best chance of the group due to his positional versatility—he’s been featured at both safety and nickel CB throughout offseason workouts thus far. Hill is stuck behind the dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Saubert has great athletic upside and receiving ability, but will need to prove he can block consistently to get on the field for Atlanta.
That just leaves the athletic LB from LSU, Duke Riley. Riley is a player in the mold of last year’s second round pick (also from LSU) Deion Jones—fast, good in coverage, and capable of making plays from sideline-to-sideline. The weakness for Riley (and for Jones) is that they’re a bit undersized for NFL LBs.
However, unlike Jones, Riley will play the WLB role in the Falcons’ defense. He’ll be relied upon less to take on blocks and stuff gaps, and more as a versatile tackling machine that can assist in coverage of RBs and TEs when called upon. Riley will also not be thrown into the “defensive leader” role that the MLB typically inherits, which should allow him to focus more on adjusting to the NFL game.
With the news that last year’s WLB—De’Vondre Campbell—will likely be spending time at SLB in base packages, an immediate avenue to playing time has appeared for Riley. Assuming the young LB can beat out players like converted safety Kemal Ishmael and depth guys like LaRoy Reynolds and Josh Keyes, he should step into a clear role early in the season.
It’s unclear at this point if Campbell will be featured solely at SLB, or if he will continue to play WLB in nickel packages. Still, Duke Riley appears to be the rookie with the simplest and most concise path to a starting role. If he can step in early in the season and play well next to his old teammate Deion Jones, Riley could be a difference-maker for an ascending Falcons’ defense in 2017.
Which rookie do you think has the best chance to make an immediate impact for this Falcons’ team? Are there any rookies you’re going to be keeping a close eye on in training camp? Any UDFAs that might make a splash a la Brian Poole?