As head coach Dan Quinn evaluates the prospects at this week's Scouting Combine, his goal will be to be identify the athletes who can upgrade Atlanta's already impressive collection of young talent.
Thanks to some strong drafts and wise college free agent signings, the Falcons have filled their depth chart with difference-makers in their early- and mid-20s—many of whom contributed on defense in Super Bowl LI. One such player is Deion Jones, who, over the course of 2016, evolved from a rookie getting his sea legs under him into a force at inside linebacker.
"Deion had a terrific year. I shared this story with a few people. At some point during the year, he went from like a first-year player to a second- or third-year player," Quinn said Wednesday in Indianapolis.
"That's pretty rare to do. There were times where we'd put our head into the huddle and he would give us the arm-bar toward the end of the season. He was like, 'I got it,' where in the beginning part of the season, he could lock in on his assignment but couldn't share all the things that happen at linebacker with everyone else."
Quinn added that once Jones got a handle on communication – an important part of his job in the middle of the field – the blazing speed he can show during a 40-yard dash began translating to the games. His motor allowed him to make a lot of highlight reel plays and become a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
Of course, the LSU product wasn't the lone rookie to impact Atlanta's defense last season. Keanu Neal, another DROY hopeful, along with De'Vondre Campbell and Brian Poole, assumed a starting role, joining 2014-15 Rookie Club members Ricardo Allen, Jalen Collins, Vic Beasley Jr. and Grady Jarrett.
All seven of those Falcons are currently 25 or younger. As a group, they helped Atlanta improve in a number of key areas – namely sacks and turnovers – and gave their coach plenty of reasons for optimism in 2017.
"We are really lit up about the guys who are up and coming, especially defensively," Quinn said. "Campbell is one at linebacker. Neal, Brian Poole – those guys and in our four underneath positions, the speed, the tackling and the hitting, we are really encouraged by that.
"We do feel along with them and guys up front like Grady and Vic, and then the secondary guys like Ricardo Allen, they are kind of still coming into their own. Then we've got some guys on the outside with (Desmond) Trufant, (Robert Alford) and Jalen, who really understand the principles that we are playing. We feel like we are going to make big strides defensively."