When Dan Quinn became the Falcons' head coach in February of 2015, his task was to revive an organization two years removed from its most prosperous era. Accomplishing this, he knew, would require an enviable foundation to build around, much like the one that led Atlanta to five straight winning seasons from 2008-12.
Some of the vital pieces Quinn needed were already in place. He had a franchise QB in Matt Ryan, and a superstar wideout in Julio Jones. Devonta Freeman was on the cusp of a breakout year. Desmond Trufant was, and is, a top-tier cornerback; Jake Matthews had the tools needed to become a franchise left tackle.
Expanding Atlanta's core with the right athletes – those who are fast and physical, relentless and disciplined – would go a long way toward bringing the Falcons back to contention. And in the last 19 months, Quinn, along with Thomas Dimitroff, have done exactly that.
Laying the groundwork
As of Monday, the Falcons' 53-man roster includes 15 players who are either rookies or entering their second NFL season. (Jalen Collins (suspended), Akeem King (injured reserve) and Devin Fuller (injured reserve) could raise that number soon.) Of those 15, the majority are poised to assume big roles in Atlanta — not just down the road, but as soon as this season.
The defense in particular will consist of many Falcons in their early 20s. As far as rookies go, MLB Deion Jones and WLB De'Vondre Campbell – drafted in the second and fourth rounds, respectively – could start on Sunday. Upon his return from a knee injury, Keanu Neal will be Atlanta's strong safety of the present and future. And Brian Poole might be the go-to guy at nickel back, even though he went undrafted last spring.
They'll be joined by second-year pros Ricardo Allen, Vic Beasley Jr. and Grady Jarrett. Even before Neal and Collins return, the defense will be full of promising, youthful options.
"I think it's just a testament to how we all came in collectively," Campbell said. "We all came in with the right mindset of, 'We're here for one reason, and that's to help this team win.' And they brought us here for a reason because they thought we could do that. I think we've all done that thus far. We just have to keep continuing to build on that."
Quinn has shown he's willing to roll with the rookies if it gives Atlanta the best chance to win. As Dimitroff said last weekend, "Young guys know that when they come in here that they have a chance to start, literally start." This message has resonated well throughout the locker room.
"Oh man, that means a lot," Jones said. "I know that a lot is going to be asked of me, and I'm willing to take on those responsibilities. I want to get these vets and the guys on our team to rely on us play in and play out. It goes with the amount of work we put in, them trusting us to go out there and do what they're asking us to do."
This just does not happen all over the league at all
Upon joining the Falcons, Quinn assembled one of the largest staffs in the NFL. Many of these coaches have been asked to help with Plan D: An initiative aimed at getting the most out of all 63 players on board.
That enterprise bore fruit towards the end of last season, as a number of practice squad members — King, Joey Mbu, Ben Garland, Tyler Starr — graduated to the active roster. And it's continuing to make an impact in 2016: Garland had a stellar offseason and has moved up the depth chart; secondary coach Marquand Manuel has helped shape Poole into a viable defensive back; sixth-round pick Wes Schweitzer has matured quickly enough to push for a starting job at right guard.
Plan D is aimed at helping those at the bottom of the totem pole, those on the fringe, but Quinn and Co. use the same tactics on other Falcons, too — especially rookies. Combine that unique coaching with the right acquisitions and the level of effort Quinn expects, and the team has a surplus of up-and-coming talent.
"A big point that can't be overemphasized is Dan's Plan D approach to all this. We have so many discussions about Plan D, the development aspect to his approach," Dimitroff said. "To play young guys and have young guys from a building standpoint, it is so important. It's a very good value. It's about being creative with the roster, putting everyone together as we go on. … It's a major feather in Dan's cap the way that these guys are coaching. This just does not happen all over the league at all."
The influx of high-ceiling prospects has greatly impacted the team's blueprint: To keep this group intact, the Falcons are "going to have to be very mindful with the proper roster spots with our younger guys," according to Dimitroff.
Suffice it to say, expectations for the two latest Rookie Clubs are high. They will endure their fair share of growing pains, but if they continue to progress the way Quinn anticipates, Atlanta may have the core needed to enjoy long-term success.
"(Being a part of the foundation) is important to me. I take it seriously," Campbell said. "So every day I approach it with the mindset that I want to get better and I want to do whatever I can to help contribute to this team and really win."