A look at six Falcons Dan Quinn would like to see elevate their play in 2018

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Falcons coach Dan Quinn discusses six players who can elevate their games in 2018 as the team will be battling to reclaim the NFC title and reach the Super Bowl, which will he played at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons coach Dan Quinn is already working on the opening speech he will deliver when players return for the offseason program.

In the meantime, before the April 16th report date, he and his staff are preparing point of attack video to show players what each needs to be get done before the start of the NFL season.

Quinn was asked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at this week’s owners meetings to name several players who could elevate their level of play for the 2018 season. On offense, he noted tight end Austin Hooper and right tackle Ryan Schraeder. On defense, he mentioned defensive end Vic Beasley, linebacker Duke Riley, nickel back Brian Poole and strong safety Keanu Neal.

“(Left cornerback Desmond) Trufant and (right cornerback Robert) Alford as well,” Quinn said. “It’s good group. They are hungry. They can’t wait to get going with the offseason program.”

Quinn broke down the areas of improvement for the players.

“It’s always a good thing to have something to prove,”  Quinn said. “I think all of those guys in their own ways have something to prove.”

Here’s what Quinn had to say about each:

Austin Hooper, tight end 

Hooper played 787 snaps (76.6 percent of the offensive snaps) last season. He sparkled early before proving to be undependable as the season progressed.

He caught 49 of 65 targets (75.4 percent catch rate) for 526 yards and three touchdowns. He had 265 yards after the catch.

He didn’t fight back to the ball on a memorable play against the Dolphins and had three drops, including a big one that was intercepted against the Saints.

Hooper, who’s headed into his third year out of Stanford, has been working with quarterback Matt Ryan over the offseason.

“I’m really looking forward to where Austin Hooper is going to go,” Quinn said.

Hooper is a pass-catching tight end.

“Some of the ones are not on the stat sheet,” Quinn said of his areas of improvement. “In the run game, he can get better. Then his ability to where we can use him in different matchups base on guys for us that are tough option route (runners) to cover, especially on third down ... how do we get to the next space.”

With teams on the lookout for receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Hooper has to get open and make defenses pay.

“There have to be some matchups for the tight end to go over,” Quinn said. “He’s a really committed football guy. I think there will be a big jump. The numbers indicated that he went from 18 catches to 49 catches. But I think our expectations, and his, are stronger than that.”

Ryan Schraeder, right tackle

Schraeder missed two games last season while in the concussion protocol. He played 893 snaps, which was 81.2 percent of the offensive snaps.

He was the 29th rated tackle by Pro Football Focus and had a 77.5 grade, which is considered average on their scale, for his play last season.

The Falcons believe Schraeder can be much better than average.

“I’m looking forward to Ryan Schraeder and the style and attitude for him to really kind of come through,” Quinn said.

Vic Beasley, left defensive end

The Falcons played Beasley at linebacker last season and his sacks dipped from a league-leading 15.5 to just five last season. He’s being moved back to left defensive end in the nickel package.

“Our takeaways defensively were down,” Quinn said. “He’s one of the guys that we count on to get the ball off of people. The quarterbacks from a forced-fumble standpoint is usually the one that you go after.”

The Falcons play nickel 70 percent of the time and plan to unleash Beasley and right end Takkarist McKinley and hope they re-vitalized the pass rush.

“We may flip them some,” Quinn said.

He expects Beasley to return to Pro Bowl status.

“Getting back to that level, it’s closer than you think,” Quinn said. “There were some where he was close and didn’t finish the job. For him, finding those moments to finish, that’s going to be a big thing.”

Beasley has speed and studied the speed move during his breakout season with Dwight Freeney. He’s now working on an inside counter move to keep tackles off balance.

“Think of yourself as the pitcher and you’ve got a sweet fast ball and that’s him with a speed, he can beat a guy at the punch, but what is the other pitch that he goes, to?” Quinn said. “The speed part of his game is always intact, but how do you work the inside counter?

“For him, it was all related to pass rush. It was what moves can I throw in there to work on. He’s already underway.”

Duke Riley, weakside linebacker

Riley was drafted in the third round (75th overall) last season out of LSU and was the opening day starter against the Bears.

After missing too many tackles, he eventually lost his position and then suffered a knee injury. The Falcons still believe he can turn in to a player.

"Duke Riley is one that I really think is going to make a big jump from year one to year two," Quinn said.

He’s going to get pushed along by linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich.

“I’m looking for an significant jump,” Quinn said. “A couple of things that we are going to ask him to do at his spot, really be a good space-tackler and he’ll have to play a little bit of man-to-man on backs and tight ends. He’s able to do both of those.”

The Falcons love Riley’s football knowledge.

“He can pick it up quickly,” Quinn said. “He’s got the mental quickness to know what’s going to happen and where to go. He had some of the on-the-job training that DeVondre (Campbell) did and Deion (Jones) did the year prior, but not as much.”

The in-season knee surgery was a setback for Riley, who played 221 snaps (21.2 percent of the defensive snaps).

“He’s really motivated,” Quinn said.

Brian Poole, nickel back

Poole played in 15 regular-season games and made two starts. He played 697 defensive snaps (60.2 percent).

Damontae Kazee, who played free safety, but was a cornerback in college at San Diego State, is being move to the slot to compete with Poole.

Keanu Neal, strong safety 

The Falcons believe the hard-hitting Neal can make the jump to Pro Bowl status.

“The thing I really admire about his game, first is his ability in the run game to force fumbles,” Quinn said. “I think in two years, he has eight. I don’t know where that stands, but that’s a good number for a (defensive back).

The Falcons want Neal to make better decision on when to go for the knock-out shot and when to make the quality tackle and get a player to the ground or to make more interceptions.

“When is it a big hit or when is it one where OK, this is time that I just have to get this guy down and the catch ends there,” Quinn said. “With all of the (defensive backs), Keke included, with their ball skills to convert on the interceptions.

“We had some interceptions that were taken away by penalty. We also had some interceptions that were just flat dropped. Those are two of the areas for him.”

Neal botched a potentially key interception in the divisional playoff against the Eagles. He appeared to mis-time his jump.

“I think a lot of it has to do with focus all the way through, extend your hands to go get it,” Quinn said. “It wasn’t just at one spot, we’ve actually had that at a few spots. That’s a big point of emphasis for our defense this year. Can we go after the ball and take it away at the level that we expect?”

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