The Falcons improved from 8-8 to 11-5 last season, in part, because of the strong play from the rookie class.
The Falcons don’t need to lean as heavily on the 2017 rookie class, which appears to have three future starters and possibly a Pro Bowler in rookie defensive end Takkarist McKinley.
Also, right guard Wes Schweitzer, who didn’t play a snap is 2016, essentially is a rookie starter at right guard.
Here’s how an assessment of the rookies after four NFL games:
Takkarist McKinley, defensive end. He was selected 26th overall and pressed into duty when Vic Beasley went down with a hamstring strain/tear against Green Bay in Week 2. He has been solid.
“We’ve been impressed with (McKinley) so far in the first four weeks,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “He really has effort and toughness, all the things that we are looking for. I think he’ll continue to get better as it goes.”
Duke Riley, weakside linebacker. The third-round pick from LSU has struggled with the speed of the game and has missed a rash of tackles. He’s the 33rd rated (last) outside 4-3 linebacker in the league according to Pro Football Focus.
The Falcons are not alarmed. They love his speed and think the tackling will come around.
“He’s almost at the same exact numbers (of missed tackles) that Deion Jones had last year at the same time,” Quinn said. “I think he could improve a lot upon that. We’re counting on that for sure.”
The Falcons anticipated that there would be some bumps in the road for Riley.
“In his case, because of his athleticism, we really feel like the missed tackles are going to be correctable,” Quinn said. “You don’t fully get to do those until you’re in the game, so you need that experience and the on-the-job training. The fact that we don’t tackle in practice (is a factor).”
Quinn believes once things smooth out for Riley, he’ll eventually be a leader on defense.
“He’s definitely going to be somebody that has that with him, too,” Quinn said.
Sean Harlow, offensive guard. The fourth-round pick from Oregon State has been inactive for all four games.
“With Harlow, we like (how) his development is coming,” Quinn said.
He wasn’t on par with Ben Garland and Schweitzer, who were competing for the starting right guard spot.
“He has made progress,” Quinn said.
Damontae Kazee, free safety. The fifth-round pick from San Diego State started against Buffalo and held his own. He will hit, too.
Quinn has been impressed by his ballhawking skills.
“We were going to try (him) some at nickel early, and we just decided to leave him at safety,” Quinn said. “It was enough of a transition. He has nickel ability, but for right now, we’re playing him more at free safety.”
Brian Hill, running back. The fifth-round pick from Wyoming was slowed in the exhibition season by an ankle injury. He’s playing on special teams and could challenge for the third running back spot over the course of the season.
“We’ll see where it goes with him and Terron Ward over the next couple of weeks,” Quinn said.
Eric Saubert, tight end. The seventh-round pick from Drake has contributed on special teams.
“He’s ready to take on a bigger role (on offense),” Quinn said. “He’s certainly putting the work in, but really his role right now (is ) as the third tight end and (having) a big role on special teams.”
Wes Schweitzer, right guard. The sixth-round pick in 2016 won the job of starter at right guard. He’s bounced back strong in the run game and pass protection after shaky debut in the opener against Chicago.
FALCONS 2017 DRAFT BIOS
FIRST ROUND (26th overall) TAKKARIST McKINLEY, DE/LB, UCLA HEIGHT: 6-foot-2 WEIGHT: 250 pounds ARM LENGTH: 33 3/8 inches HAND SIZE: 10 1/4 inches 40-YARD DASH: 4.59 seconds BENCH PRESS: 24 reps of 225 pounds VERTICALJUMP: 33 inches BROAD JUMP: 10 feet, 2 inches THREE-CONE DRILL: 7.48 seconds ■OVERVIEW: He was a two-year starter for the Bruins after overcoming some early academic issues. He lined up at left and right defensive end in the Bruins’ four-man front, standing up and putting his hand on the ground. He was a legitimate candidate for Pac-12 defensive player of the year last season with 10 sacks.“McKinley has the explosive pass-rush potential to terrorize NFL quarterbacks, projecting in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes,” wrote Dan Brugler in his 2017 NFL draft report.
THIRD ROUND (75th overall) DUKE RILEY, LB, LSU HEIGHT: 6-foot-1 WEIGHT: 230 pounds ARM LENGTH: 32 inches HAND SIZE: 9 1/4 inches 40-YARD DASH: 4.58 seconds BENCH PRESS: 18 reps of 225 pounds VERTICALJUMP: 34 1/2 inches BROAD JUMP:10 feet, 2 inches THREE-CONE DRILL: 6.89 seconds ■ OVERVIEW: He was a three-star recruit coming out of John Curtis High in Bursa, La., and picked LSU over TCU and Tulane. The offer from the Tigers was a grayshirt opportunity, but the week before signing day, LSU upgraded the offer to a full scholarship. He committed on the spot. He spent his freshman season on special teams and recorded seven tackles. Riley earned his first career start as a sophomore, but most of his playing time was on special teams, posting 20 tackles. Riley moved into the starting lineup last season and led LSU with 93 tackles, adding nine tackles for loss, two passes defended and one interception.
FOURTH ROUND (136rd overall) SEAN HARLOW, OG, OREGON STATE HEIGHT: 6-foot-4 WEIGHT: 305 pounds ARM LENGTH: 32 inches HAND SIZE: 9 1/2 inches 40-YARD DASH: 5.15 seconds BENCH PRESS: 26 reps of 225 pounds VERTICALJUMP: 30 1/2 nches BROAD JUMP: 8 feet, 9 inches THREE-CONE DRILL: 8.16 seconds ■ OVERVIEW: The San Clemente, Calif., native started 37 games for the Beavers, including 23 at left tackle and 14 at right tackle. He will be asked to play guard for the Falcons. He knows Falcons running back Terron Ward from his days at Oregon State and Falcons tight end Austin Hooper. His father, Pat Harlow, was the 11th pick in the 1991 draft and played for the Patriots and the Raiders from 1991-98. He’s a relentless hustle player who needs to refine his techniques for his move to guard. He graduated with a degree in human development and family sciences in December. He was a team captain. He helped the Beavers set a single-season rushing record with 5.2 yards per carry. He was named to the Pac-12 All-Conference second team.
FIFTH ROUND (149th overall) DAMONTAE KAZEE, CB/FS, SAN DIEGO STATE HEIGHT: 5-foot-10 WEIGHT: 184 pounds ARM LENGTH: 30 7/8 inches HAND SIZE: 8 5/8 inches 40-YARD DASH: 4.54.15 seconds BENCH PRESS: 11 reps of 225 pounds VERTICALJUMP: 34 inches BROAD JUMP: 10 feet, 4 inches THREE-CONE DRILL: 7.11 seconds ■ OVERVIEW: The Falcons told him he would play some nickel back and safety in the defense. He redshirted and was a reserve in 2013. He made 13 starts in 2014 and led the team with 14 passes defended, adding 58 tackles and one interception to earn second-team All-Mountain West Conference honors. He was named an All-American and Mountain West defensive player of the year in 2015, with a team-best 15 passes defended and eight interceptions. Kazee returned for his senior season and again earned All-American status and won the conference defensive player-of-the-year honors with 65 tackles, 15 passes defended and seven interceptions. His brother, Walter, was a running back at San Diego State (2009-12).
FIFTH ROUND (156th overall) BRIAN HILL, RB, WYOMING HEIGHT: 6-foot-1 WEIGHT: 219 pounds ARM LENGTH: 31 3/8 inches HAND SIZE: 8 7/8 inches 40-YARD DASH: 4.48 seconds BENCH PRESS: 15 reps of 225 pounds VERTICALJUMP: 34 inches BROAD JUMP: 10 feet, 5 inches THREE-CONE DRILL: 7.03 seconds ■ OVERVIEW: He played in 38 games and made 28 starts over his career. He rushed for 4,287 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry while scoring 35 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 41 passes for 403 yards over his career. He was a two-year starter rushing for 135.9 yards per game as a sophomore and 132.9 yards per game as a junior. He runs well off tackle and can bounce his runs to the outside. He runs with toughness and has vision in the open field.
FIFTH ROUND (174th overall) ERIC SAUBERT, TE, DRAKE
HEIGHT: 6-foot-4 WEIGHT: 242 pounds ARM LENGTH: 33 1/2 inches HAND SIZE: 10 3/8 inches 40-YARD DASH: 4.67 seconds BENCH PRESS:22 reps of 225 pounds VERTICALJUMP: 35 1/2 inches (Pro Day) BROAD JUMP: 10 feet, 1 inches THREE-CONE DRILL: 7.29 seconds ■ OVERVIEW: He played in 41 games and made 37 starts over his career. He caught 190 passes for 2,253 yards and 21 touchdowns. Saubert lined up in the slot, wing and out wide in the Bulldogs’ spread offense. He finished among the top FCS receiving leaders at tight end the past two seasons. He’ll have to improve his blocking to make it in the NFL.