How Falcons' 2018 rookie class performed in Year 1

Cover 9@9: Quinn expects second-year players to make major strides

2017 draft class didn’t make leaps in second NFL seasons 

1. Second-year boost. Falcons coach Dan Quinn has stated on several occasions that players make the biggest jump in play from their first years to their second seasons in the NFL.

The work will start when the Falcons start their offseason program on April 15.

Last season, the second-year theory didn’t work very well.

Defensive end Takk McKinley (first-round pick in 2017), linebacker Duke Riley (third-round pick in 2017) and offensive lineman Sean Harlow (fourth-round pick in 2017) did not make major leaps forward. 

McKinley played more, while Riley regressed and lost his spot in the lineup. Harlow was cut and added to the practice squad. 

Defensive back Damontaee Kazee did step up at free safety, while running back Brian Hill (fifth-round pick in 2017) and tight end Eric Saubert (fifth-round pick in 2017) were minor contributors. 

Again, the Falcons will count on the draft class from 2018 to make major strides. They appear primed to perform much better than the class of 2017. 

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley (first round), cornerback Isaiah Oliver (second), defensive tackle Deadrin Senat (third), running back Ito Smith (fourth), wide receiver/special teamer Russell Gage (sixth) and linebacker Foye Oluokun (sixth) all received major playing time last season.

Quinn has high hopes for Ridley. 

“Not all are stat related,” Quinn said. “What’s exciting is that (his play) can go up a big notch. It doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet … but in his instance it’s the route-running and the explosiveness that he has, that connection with Matt continuing to grow, that’s a really big piece.”

Ridley, who was named to the Professional Football Writers of America’s all-rookie team, had 92 targets, 64 catches, 821 receiving yards, 12.8 yards per catch and a team-record 10 touchdowns. His touchdown mark set a new franchise record, eclipsing the nine touchdowns caught by former tight end Junior Miller in 1980.

The Falcons are counting Oliver to take over at cornerback from Robert Alford.

The Falcons are hoping Senat can make a bigger impact in the defensive line rotation. 

“He was inside where it’s tough to gain that kind of experience in your first year,” Quinn said. “You have to make the lessons matter.”

Senat, who played 371 snaps, had mixed results last season. He played in 15 games and made two starts. He finished with 30 tackles, two tackles for losses and three quarterback hits. 

A rough game in Cleveland was the low point for Senat.  

“(There were) things that went well and (some things that) didn’t go well,” Quinn said. “He’s been off to a good start with his offseason program. He’s got really good quickness and we are going to try to feature him in all of the best ways. We are looking forward to seeing his improvement as well.”

Smith will be counted on to take over Tevin Coleman’s snaps in the running back rotation.  

Smith had a fine rookie campaign going before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He had 90 carries for 315 yards and four rushing touchdowns. He caught 27 passes for 152 yards. 

He ran well in between the tackles and impressed the coaching staff. 

“For Ito Smith his ability to add value in the passing game, I think we need to increase that as we are going,” Quinn said. 

The Falcons wanted Gage to learn the tricks of the trade from Justin Bethel, who was not re-signed. 

Oluokun unseated Riley and finished second on the team with 89 tackles. The former Yale standout played in all 16 games and made seven starts.

2. Slayton invited. The Falcons’ locals day is Friday and former Greater Atlanta Christian wide receiver Darius Slayton, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds at the combine, has an invite. 

Slayton caught 35 passes for 670 yards and five touchdowns last season at Auburn. He finished his career with 79 catches for 1,605 yards and 11 touchdowns. His yardage total left him ranked 11th among Auburn career leaders.

“Outside guy who does a nice job of getting off the line of scrimmage,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “Has a nice stutter (step and) release. He does a nice job of adjusting to the ball on his back shoulder.”

Jeremiah pointed to Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham’s inconsistent play, which helped to keep Slayton’s production down.

“One of the things that will get me to Stidham, there are a lot of plays on (the tape) where (Slayton’s) uncovered, but the ball doesn’t make it to him,” Jeremiah said. “I think there is some upside with him beyond what you see. I think there is some more there.”

Other players confirmed for locals day include:

--Wide receiver Shannon Smith (West Georgia) – From Macon Westside. Started his career at Southern Mississippi. 

--Safety Davanta Reynolds (North Carolina Central) – Played at Tucker High. 

--Linebacker Darius Harris (Middle Tennessee State) 

--Cornerback Ken Webster (Mississippi) -- He played at Stockbridge High. 

--Running back Keion Davis (Marshall) – Played at Langston Hughes High. 

We’ll add to the list as we get more confirmations. 

3. Picking 14th. The Falcons, who are slated to pick 14th overall in the upcoming NFL draft,  have never had the 14th pick.

The draft is set for April 25-27 in Nashville. 

The 14th overall picks over the past five years list only Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller as having earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. Last season, Fuller was named to the Pro Bowl and was named All-Pro. 

Fuller was the 14th overall pick in 2014.

In 2015, Miami picked wide receiver DeVante Parker. The Raiders picked safety Karl Joseph 14th in 2016.

In 2017, the Eagles selected defensive end Derek Barnett and in 2018 the Saints picked defensive end Marcus Davenport. 

4. Joseph, Neal linked. Joseph has started 32 games and played in 40. The Falcons selected Keanu Neal three picks after Joseph at 17th overall in 2016. 

Neal was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2017 after his second season in the league.

5. Kelly or Revis. Since 1980, the best player selected with the 14th pick overall is either former Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly (1983) or former cornerback Darrelle Revis (2007 by the Jets). 

Kelly is a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Revis is likely a first-ballot hall of famer when his five-year waiting period is up. 

6. Best Falcons pick. The Falcons have had the 13th pick three times and selected wide receiver Mike Pritchard in 1991; quarterback Chris Miller in 1987; and offensive lineman Mike Kenn in 1978. Kenn has been a Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinalist. 

7. Other top 14 picks: Seattle selected safety Earl Thomas with the 14th overall pick in 2010. Other top 14s include: safety Malcolm Jenkins (Saints, 2009); linebacker Thomas Davis (Panthers, 2005); and running back Eddie George (Oilers, 1996).

8. Falcons in neighborhood. The Falcons selected linebacker Keith Brooking with the 12th overall pick in 1998. 

Defensive back Michael Booker was selected with the 11th pick in 1997.

Tim Green was selected 17th overall pick in 1986 and Mike Pitts was selected 16th overall in 1983.

9. Depth chart: Here’s what the depth chart looks heading into the offseason program:

Offense

WR 11 Julio Jones, 14, Justin Hardy, 83 Russell Gage, 16 Christian Blake 

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 77 Matt Gono 

LG James Carpenter, 71 Wes Schweitzer

C 51 Alex Mack, 71 Wes Schweitzer

RG 68 Jamon Brown, 65 Brandon Fusco, 64 Sean Harlow 

RT 74 Ty Sambrailo, 77 Matt Gono

TE 81 Austin Hooper, 88 Luke Stocker, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 87 Jaeden Graham, 89 Alex Gray 

WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Calvin Ridley, 7 Devin Gray 

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 6 Kurt Benkert

RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 25 Ito Smith, 32 Brian Hill, 38 Kenjon Barner, 43 Jeremy Langford

FB 30 Ricky Ortiz 

Defense

DE 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 56 Steven Means

DT 94 Deadrin Senat, 93 Michael Bennett, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner 

DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford, 92 Justin Zimmer 

DE 98 Takk McKinley

WLB 54 Foyesade Olukon, 42 Duke Riley 

LB 45 Deion Jones, 55 Bruce Carter 

LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 53 Jermaine Grace 

CB 20 Isaiah Oliver, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson

NCB 27 Damontae Kazee, 

CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 38 Taveze Calhoun 

FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman

SS 22 Keanu Neal, 40 Ryan Neal 

Specialists

K 4 Giorgio Tavecchio

KO 5 Matt Bosher 

P 5 Matt Bosher 

KR 38 Kenjon Barner, 14 Calvin Ridley

PR 14 Justin Hardy, 38 Kenjon Barner 

LS 47 Josh Harris

H 5 Matt Bosher

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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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