Before diving into the final stretch run to the NFL draft, Falcons coach Dan Quinn shared some thoughts with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about six players he’s counting on to elevate their games in 2016.
He wants them to elevate from being role players to becoming major contributors, but one member of the group — cornerback Jalen Collins — has been suspended for the first four games of the season after violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
In addition to Collins, the group includes defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley, running back Tevin Coleman, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, wide receiver Justin Hardy and free safety Robenson Therezie.
Collins played in all 16 games and made two starts. He started two games and finished with 12 tackles and five special-teams tackles.
Collins had offseason foot surgery in 2015 and missed most of the training sessions. He struggled at times in coverage, but will have an opportunity to compete for the starting right cornerback spot when he returns from his suspension.
In the meantime, Collins will be able to work out and train with the team.
“He has to play really disciplined at the line of scrimmage,” Quinn said. “He didn’t get an offseason with us last year. He had a foot injury. The first real work that he got was when we got into training camp.”
Beasley, the team’s top draft pick in 2015, started all 16 games last season and recorded the most sacks by a rookie in a season (4.0) since 1982, according to NFL True Media. Beasley, who struggled at times against the run, had 27 tackles, one interception, two forced fumbles, and two passes defensed.
In the upset of the Panthers in the 15th game of the season, Beasley recorded his second career strip sack to close out the game at the end of fourth quarter.
The plan is to use Beasley as more of a hybrid. He will rush the passer from defensive end in the nickel defense. The team will look at him playing more linebacker in the base 4-3 over the offseason.
“With Vic, on his pass rush, he’s played both on the left side and on the right side,” Quinn said. “For us, it’s the inside counters because sometimes he has great speed.”
Beasley, who played last season with a torn labrum, needs something to go with his speed rushes.
“He’s hauling up the field, so if a guy is waiting on that move, you can defend it,” Quinn said. “So, think of a basketball player who’s dribbling with his left hand. (You’d want to make his go right.)
“He has to develop some inside counters where he uses some of his strength. Although he’s not a big man, he’s powerful when he uses it. The more speed that you have, you better use your inside counters. That’s one for sure with him in the (pass) rush game.”
Coleman opened the season as the starting running back and got off to a promising start before suffering fractured ribs in the second game of the season. While out, Devonta Freeman took over the position and turned in a Pro Bowl campaign.
Despite Freeman’s success, the Falcons still have high hopes for Coleman, who was electrifying in the open field. However, he also had ball-security issues.
Coleman played in 12 games and made three starts. He rushed for 392 yards on 87 carries (4.5 yards per carry) and scored one touchdown. He had only two catches for 14 yards and was credited with three fumbles.
Coleman’s rookie season was cut short after he slipped in the shower and sustained a concussion, causing him to miss the final two games of the regular season.
“For him, prove you can be available,” Quinn said. “He had the hamstring issue, concussion at the end. He broke a rib. He’s a grit competitor.”
The Falcons believe that Coleman and Freeman can split the rushing load in their outside-zone rushing system.
“In terms of him like running in the outside zone, seeing his reads and making his cuts, he was really on point,” Quinn said. “That’s why we are so excited because he and Free together make a pretty unique combination.”
Hardy was inactive at the beginning of the season because he was learning how to read a pro-style playbook. He ended up playing in nine games and made one start.
Hardy, who finished with 21 catches on 36 targets for 194 yards and no touchdowns, needs to work on creating separation from defenders against man-to-man coverage.
Hardy attended the team’s players-only camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the end of March.
“He’s a guy who I think looked a lot more comfortable (at that camp),” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “He looked a lot more comfortable than last year. That’s one of the biggest jumps from Year 1 to Year 2, just understanding everything that goes along with it. He looked really comfortable and that’s going to be really good for us.”
Jarrett was productive in a reserve rotational role last season. He finished with 24 tackles, one sack and four tackles for losses, and played 267 of the defensive snaps (25.4 percent).
“He’s got very, very good foot quickness,” Quinn said. “He’s not a 315-pounder, and we don’t want him to be. He can anchor because he’s so strong. For him, developing some more pass rush inside will be the real factor for him moving forward.”
Therezie was a valuable reserve last season as he backed Ricardo Allen at free safety. He’ll compete for the starting spot and more playing time in the specialty defenses.
He played 289 defensive snaps (27.5 percent) as a rookie and 140 snaps on special teams (34 percent).
“The speed is there, but can he get all of the details that go down to playing that position?” Quinn said. “At the safety spot, the communication is a big. If he’s going to really compete for the free safety spot, his communications had better be on point, making the calls for the other guys you are basically the quarterback for the secondary as the free safety.”