FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Dan Quinn has named six players he wants to step up next year.
Of course Quinn's overall expectation is that all of his players elevate their game this offseason, but he thinks if these six players can take their game to the next level, his team could be that much better.
On offense, it's Austin Hooper and Ryan Schraeder. On defense it's Vic Beasley Jr., Keanu Neal, Brian Poole and Duke Riley.
"Those are a few [guys] that it's always a good thing to prove and all of those guys in their own way have some stuff to prove," Quinn said.
Quinn and the rest of his staff have spent the offseason self-assessing and preparing for how they'll attack the offseason. Players will be given specific areas to focus on over the course of the offseason program with hopes that collectively the team will take the next step.
Hooper is someone Quinn expects to make a jump from Year 2 to Year 3. The tight end has improved each year he's been in the league and the hope is that trend continues -- he finished the 2017 season catching 49 passes for 526 yards and three touchdowns. In his rookie season in 2016, he caught 19 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns.
The biggest area of emphasis for the Falcons this offseason is to find ways to improve their scoring offense and Quinn envisions Hooper being a big part of that.
"[There are going to be times where] Matt's going to put the ball in a spot that only Hoop can turn and catch it back shoulder," Quinn said. "They spend a lot of time working those specific skills together and we're going to add even more of that in practice time together."
Schraeder suffered a concussion early on in the season that kept him out until after the Falcons' bye week in early October. Quinn has said he wants more explosive plays in the run game next season, and Schrader's ability to block and set up those holes for running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman will be key.
After a season in which he led the league in sacks with 15.5, Beasley's sack numbers saw a drop-off to five. But even more importantly than the sacks that Beasley recorded in 2016 was the six forced fumbles he created. One of the most important statistics to Coach Quinn is the turnover margin and the Falcons didn't meet Quinn's standard in that area last season. The hope is that will change with him moving back to defensive end full-time. The Falcons used Beasley at linebacker more in the 2017 season and after review of the season, Quinn wants Beasley to get back to solely focusing on rushing the passer, what he does best.
"For a stretch there, we felt the best thing for us to do would be play him in both roles – at [linebacker] and at the nickel defensive end," Quinn said. "We're just going to go back to what he does best. At the time, we needed to use him in that role, but we'll feature him as a defensive end all the time in 2018."
In just his second year in the league, Neal was selected to the Pro Bowl and he's only just getting started. The Falcons rely heavily on his physical, hard-hitting style. Neal finished the season as the Falcons' second leading tackler with 113 on the year. The safety also led the way forcing three fumbles, recovering two of them. The Falcons' former first-round pick set a new NFL record for most forced fumbles by a defensive back in his first two seasons with eight.
Poole has been the Falcons' nickel cornerback for the past two seasons after signing with the team as a college free agent in 2016. In two years, he's recorded 92 tackles, 14 pass defensed, two sacks and one interception. Poole plays a significant role in the Falcons' secondary and as the unit continues to improve, Poole's progression as a player will be important.
Riley is coming off an injury-riddled rookie season. The linebacker underwent knee surgery early in the season that sidelined him for a majority of the year. In five games, Riley recorded 30 tackles. Riley's speed and knowledge of the game is what excites Quinn about the potential Riley has in his defense. Quinn is expecting Riley to make a big jump in his second year.