After agreeing to a three-year extension with the Falcons, general manager Thomas Dimitroff said his team is "in a spot where the arrow definitely is up, and I think we have a lot of budding talent here that can take us to the levels we want to get to." Looking back, much of that talent was acquired during a single week last spring.
Between its NFL Draft choices and college free agent signings, Atlanta added a plethora of skilled rookies in 2016 — many of whom have helped the Falcons to a 6-3 start.
S Keanu Neal (first round), LB Deion Jones (second round), LB De'Vondre Campbell (fourth round) and CB Brian Poole (undrafted) have earned significant roles on defense. TE Austin Hooper (third round) has become a consistent receiver capable of making explosive plays when called upon.
Additionally, OT Wes Schweitzer (sixth round), WR J.D. McKissic (undrafted), S Sharrod Neasman (undrafted) and TE Joshua Perkins (undrafted) have all shown promise.
"I think expectations were high, obviously, coming in. And I think having the picks that we had, where we were picking, we felt very confident that we were going to put together a good group of guys," Dimitroff said. "We're really happy with how they're producing from this year's class.
"We think there are some guys that are not actually on the field right now that are going to continue to get better and better for us, which is going to be very beneficial for us as we're continuing to retool the roster in the future."
The young players have been especially beneficial to Atlanta's D, which has shown tangible signs of improvement in Year 2 of head coach Dan Quinn's tenure. Owner Arthur Blank said he wanted to add three starters in the 2016 draft, and including Poole, the Rookie Club has already brought four on defense alone.
"I think it is crazy that four young guys can come in (on defense) and step in and really contribute the way that we have," Campbell said. "But when you think about it, how we all came in with our mindset that we want to be able to help the team in any way possible, it doesn't seem too farfetched that it happened the way that it did."
Up 1.5 games in the NFC South, the Falcons can use the next seven weeks to clinch their first postseason berth since 2012. Doing so will require a lot of help from the rookies — and, according to Campbell, it'll require improvement in one key area.
"I just think we have to finish better," he said. "Even though we had a really good overall game (on Thursday), I don't think we finished as well as we should have. That's us as a defense collectively. We all have to have that mentality: Championship teams finish. We have a team that's capable of winning a championship, but we just have to finish better."