In the days following the 2016 NFL Draft, grades for Atlanta's class weren't particularly glowing. Sports Illustrated gave the Falcons a D for their efforts; Pro Football Focus, which offered them a D , wasn't much nicer.
Fast forward to the present, though, and it's clear Atlanta made a lot of wise decisions as they put together their latest Rookie Club. By adding four starters on defense, two pass-catching tight ends and a promising offensive lineman, Thomas Dimitroff, Dan Quinn and the rest of the Falcons staff solidified their foundation with a lot of talent straight from the college ranks.
Analyst Bucky Brooks agrees and made Atlanta one of only two teams so far to receive an A in NFL.com's latest series of rookie grades.
"Whenever a team can field four rookie starters on a Super Bowl defense, the coaching staff and personnel department deserve serious props for their player identification and development plans," Brooks wrote. "Dan Quinn showed tremendous confidence in his youngsters when he inserted Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Brian Poole into the starting lineup. The young quartet not only energized the unit with energy and athleticism, but these guys added some thump and playmaking ability to a lineup that started to come together down the stretch.
"Offensively, Austin Hooper flashed big-play potential as a "stretch" tight end. If he continues to progress as a playmaker, he could emerge as a nice complement to a dynamic WR corps on the perimeter."
2016 marked the third straight year the Falcons added at least three players through the draft/college free agency who have assumed starting jobs. In 2014, they brought Jake Matthews, Devonta Freeman and Ricardo Allen into the fold; in 2015, they acquired Vic Beasley Jr., Grady Jarrett and Jalen Collins; and last year, they added Neal, Jones, Hooper, Campbell and Poole.
This success has filled Atlanta's roster with a lot of young pieces that should make the Falcons a legitimate contender well into the future. As Quinn said after SBLI, the foundation has been built.
"Could the 2017 Falcons be the 2016 Panthers, a one-and-done Super Bowl flash in the pan? Anything's possible. But the quarterback in Atlanta, and the youth and speed and potential of this defense … I don't think the Falcons go 7-9 next year," Peter King wrote in the MMQB. "I think they're in league with Dallas and Green Bay and Seattle and whomever for Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis."