5. Jalen Collins
Collins was a questionable pick coming into Dan Quinn’s first season as a head coach. The former LSU product did not even play much in his final season with the Tigers, but his physical attributes were too much for the Falcons to pass up on.
You could make the case that Collins already broke out last season when Desmond Trufant went down with a season ending injury. He filled in as the starting cornerback, and too a lot of people’s surprise, did a fantastic job as a replacement. Fantastic may not even do the man justice, as he actually graded out better in coverage than Trufant according to PFF.
But Collins came into the league as a major product. The fact that he has seen this much progression in just two seasons, and in with minimal opportunities prior to being forced into action, could be the signs of something big.
The problem is the Falcons are loaded at the cornerback position. The coaches see Collins as more of an outside guy due to his 6’2″ frame, but they already have two top-of-the-line corners on the outside and a nickel in Brian Poole, who the coaches are very fond of. It is possible that Collins could impress so much on the outside, that either Alford or Trufant would have to move to the nickel. The coaches have discussed that possibility. Though at the moment, it seems like the best chance for Collins to carve out at a significant role is if one of those three goes down with an injury, which is more likely to happen than not at some point.
Collins proved that if called upon he can be a more than serviceable starter for Atlanta. There is going to be at least a role for him on this defense next season. However, given his size and physicality there is a chance Collins breaks out and becomes the best option on the outside for the Falcons. And that time might be in 2017.
4. Austin Hooper
Once Jacob Tamme went down for the season, the Falcons were desperate for tight end help. Eventually, the rookie fourth-round pick out of Stanford established himself as the best receiving option at tight end. That is not saying much given the other options at the position, but Atlanta showed confidence in Hooper by not using a high draft pick on a tight end and not adding one in free agency.
Hooper does not do anything extraordinary, but does enough things well enough to succeed in a loaded offense. He has just enough speed to create space against linebackers and a large enough frame to catch the ball over smaller defenders. The ability to catch the ball in traffic is there and he can be effective running after the catch.
The most important reason for Hooper to be on this list though is opportunity. He will be the last thing on opposing defenses minds coming into matchups, which should give him tons of chances to shine as the full-time starter coming into his second season.
3. Takkarist McKinley
There are not a lot of pass rushers that come into the league had have a major impact. Look what Vic Beasley did in his rookie season and the monumental leap he made in his second year. The Falcons traded up to get the pass rusher out of UCLA, and he has a tremendous opportunity to make a lot noise in his rookie campaign.
McKinley did not leave any doubt about whether he could rush the passer at UCLA. He recorded 10 sacks in just 11 games for the Bruins, and more impressively led the entire country in pressure rate.
New Washington LB Ryan Anderson brings a strong pressure percentage with him to the nation's capital. pic.twitter.com/oLxe2mVYcj
— PFF (@PFF) May 6, 2017
Dan Quinn has shown repeatedly he does not mind starting the young guys. Numerous rookies, drafted in different rounds, came in their rookie season and earned starting roles. Unlike a guy like Collins, McKinley will have all the opportunities in the world to be an opening day starter.
If he is able to start early on in his rookie season, which is certainly questionable given the shoulder surgery he underwent prior to the draft, he should greatly benefit from the fantastic talent around him that did not exist when guys like Vic Beasley Jr. and Grady Jarrett came into the league. McKinley will have some of the best people teaching him, and a fearsome group of pass rushers around him, giving him an amazing opportunity to be a force as a rookie. But this is all contingent on him being able to make a full and speedy recovery from the torn labrum he played with while at UCLA.
2. Ricardo Allen
Ricardo Allen was a fifth-round pick in 2014 and one of the few remaining players on the defense that was around prior to Dan Quinn’s arrival. Though, it was not until Quinn’s arrival that Allen started to play a role for the Falcons. After being a practice squad player for the majority of his rookie season, Allen became a full-time starter in his second season.
Allen was not a highly touted prospect coming out of college and accumulated many doubters because of his lack of size. Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com had this to say on Allen’s potential prior to the 2014 draft, “Short, lean-framed, battle-tested corner who lacks exceptional athletic traits and will always have physical limitations but has enough competitiveness and ball skills to compete for a spot as a reserve.” However, Quinn saw something special in Allen from the very beginning, naming him the opening day starter in 2015.
Despite a solid first season as a starter and an even better second season, Allen has not garnered a lot of respect around the league. Several mock drafts had Atlanta taking a safety to replace him, but the Falcons organization know just how good Allen has been so far in his career. He is Atlanta’s best ball hawk in the secondary, and even though he is undersized, has shown he is not afraid to come up and make tackles. Allen recorded 90 tackles last season, good for third on the team.
As Allen enters his third year as a starter, it is possible he experiences a huge jump in 2017. New Falcons defensive coordinator had some high praise for him earlier this offseason saying, “Ricardo is playing out of his mind, and he’s not going to change that.” He also spoke on how the new depth the Falcons now have in the secondary is something that is only fueling Allen to become better. The 5’9″, 186-pound safety did not get here without overcoming major obstacles, and more competition is only going to fuel him to take his game to the next level.
1. Grady Jarrett
Ask anyone around football, and they will likely tell you they expect Grady Jarrett to have a monster 2017 season. Drafted in the fifth-round in the 2015 draft, Jarrett became a full-time starter for the Falcons at defensive tackle last season, recording 48 tackles, three sacks and most importantly progressed throughout the season. By the time the playoffs came around, Jarrett was a certified beast, and helped this Falcons defense reach a whole new level.
Jarrett regarded a steal from the moment he was selected in the fifth-round and he has exceeded expectations ever since. Once his rookie year ended, he was ranked the 7th best selection after the first-round of the 2015 NFL Draft by Pro Football Focus. After a fantastic second season, he might find himself on top of that list today.
And of course, we cannot forget the epic three sack game he had in the Super Bowl against Tom Brady. Jarrett was the best Falcons defender on the field and did the unthinkable on the game’s brightest stage. That kind of performance caught a lot of eyes, and it is what made Cameron DaSilva of FoxSports put Jarrett a top of his list of potential breakout stars in the entire NFL of 2017.
DaSilva went on to even compare Jarrett to Aaron Donald of the Rams. That may be lofty, but Jarrett is already one of the league’s most promising defensive tackles, and could be one of the NFL’s next stars as early as next year.