The Atlanta Falcons' 2018 season was marred by injuries to many crucial players, and while that played a role in the team missing the playoff it also offered what could be a pretty big silver lining moving forward.
There's no substitute for actual on-the-job training. A person could log thousands of hours in a flight simulator but he or she does truly understand being a pilot until the wheels actually come off the ground. Injuries allowed the Falcons' rookie class to get substantial in-game experience in 2018.
This offseason, we've seen the Falcons make decisions that will put players like Isaiah Oliver and Ito Smith into more prominent roles. But because their development was somewhat accelerated last season, we've also seen the 2018 class in those roles before.
Consider Smith, for example. When the Falcons drafted him in the fourth round of last year's draft, the thinking was that he could eventually develop into one half of Atlanta's backfield duo. With Tevin Coleman's contract expiring after the 2018 season, it seemed that 2019 would be the year for that to happen.
Instead, it took one game. Starter Devonta Freeman injured himself in the season opener, leaving Smith and Coleman to be the Falcons' one-two punch at running back. So, when the Falcons opted not to re-sign Coleman this offseason it was with a clear picture of how Smith would operate as part of a running back tandem.
Under coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons have not shied away from relying on their young talent. They did so in 2016 when four rookies – Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, De'Vondre Campbell and Brian Poole – were part of a Super Bowl-caliber defense and tight end Austin Hooper caught a touchdown in Super Bowl LI.
"One of the things that we're really committed to is playing the rookies and the first-year guys," Quinn said prior to the start of the 2018 season.
But the Falcons had to rely on their rookies a bit more than they anticipated.
According to Football Outsiders, Foye Oluokun – a sixth-round draft pick out of Yale – played 48.3 percent of the Falcons' snaps on defense, which was second-most among linebackers. Defensive tackle Deadrin Senat played 34 percent of the team's snaps, and Smith played 29.3 percent of the snaps while no other running back besides Coleman saw more than seven percent playing time.
And although he was not a rookie in 2018, Damontae Kazee should not be left out of this conversation. He showed a lot of promise during the preseason but with established starters at every position in the secondary it was difficult to envision a clear role for him outside of a versatile sixth-man of sorts.
When Neal and Ricardo Allen suffered season-ending injuries before Week 3, Kazee was now a very important part of the team's defense. And he responded in a major way. Playing 90.7 percent of the snaps on defense, Kazee finished the year tied for the league lead with seven interceptions.
Without seeing him fill a starting role for the majority of the season, the Falcons might still be trying to figure out just where Kazee fits into the defensive puzzle.
The 2016 season is an interesting parallel to 2018 in the sense that the rookie class felt very important. Atlanta's 2016 class is obviously now a foundational part of the team's identity, but they had the benefit of playing alongside veteran guys who, for the most part, stayed healthy. (Also, that offense was pretty good.)
Assuming the Falcons players who suffered injuries in 2018 are healthy – and remain that way – for 2019, they won't have to shoulder quite the burden that they did in their first NFL season. Instead, they can use the experience they gained in 2018 to continue to grow in their roles and impact the game in perhaps more specific ways.
If the Falcons look like a much more talented team this season, yes, it will likely be due to the fact that star players like Jones and Freeman are back on the field. But the team's second-year players, who gained a lot of invaluable in-game experience as rookies, figure to be a primary reason as well.