Heading toward training camp, football fiends thirst for breakout potential. Who or what is the next big thing in football? In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights emerging units to keep an eye on in 2017.
The Atlanta Falcons' defense played well enough to be world champions. On the first seven possessions of his seventh Super Bowl, Tom Brady led his offense to three points. Falcons cornerback Robert Alford scored more than that on his own.
Yes, the NRG Stadium roof caved in on coach Dan Quinn's defense during the fourth quarter and overtime, but none of it would have mattered if the historic Falcons offense had scored a single point in its last four possessions, didn't go backward on two drives, didn't turn the ball over, didn't keep putting a tired Falcons defense back on the field. After a season of complementary football where Matt Ryan and friends made the defense look better than it was, the opposite was true in the Super Bowl. Would-be legendary performances from Dwight Freeney, Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett were buried in the collapse.
The 2017 Falcons squad left standing will necessarily be different in character. Quinn knows that finishing 27th in points allowed is an unsustainable model, that Ryan can't be expected to win the MVP every season. Heading into the new campaign, the biggest questions facing the team have little to do with the defense. How will replacing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan with longtime college coach Steve Sarkisian impact the offense? How will the organization shake off an unprecedented championship defeat? This young defensive nucleus is primed to erase a lot of questions.
The three-year plan
This is Quinn's third season at the helm of a Falcons franchise that gave him rare final say over his 53-man roster. While general manager Thomas Dimitroff and assistant general manager Scott Pioli deserve huge credit for finding the right pieces, this defense is Quinn's vision come to life. Nearly every key piece of the front seven was acquired since Quinn's arrival, with more than half the defensive starters from the last three drafts.
Middle linebacker Deion Jones is the key. The 2016 second-round pick is the updated model of the Tampa-2 MLB position that Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher helped make famous. Jones shows a remarkable ability to cover deep down the field when necessary, checking opponents from Doug Baldwin to Dion Lewis, from Julian Edelman to Antonio Gates. Jones and fellow 2016 draft pick De'Vondre Campbell have a chance to grow up together as a linebacker duo, like Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright did in Seattle under Quinn, their shared understanding growing with every snap.
It is remarkable to watch on NFL Game Pass how quickly Jones closes holes that initially appear open to opposing running backs. He has makeup speed, a quality that exists throughout the defense. Team speed leaps off the screen when pass rusher Vic Beasley catches Cam Newton from behind or when safety Keanu Neal hunts down Russell Wilson.
The improved athleticism exists at every position. Nose tackle Grady Jarrett, drafted in 2015 like Beasley, could wind up nearly as integral to the defense. While most of his teammates lost steam late in the Super Bowl, Jarrett was an incredible force. He had two red-zone sacks and a hit on Tom Brady in the end zone in the fourth quarter alone, plays that should have proven decisive with a little luck. Jarrett wasn't just a one-game wonder. He took over a handful of contests throughout the season, consistently disruptive beyond what stats showed in the box score.
This core group of young players -- Jones, Jarrett, Beasley, Campbell, Neal and 2017 first-round pass rusher Takkarist McKinley -- have the rare chance to mature as a unit. The same combination of talent, youth and continuity is reminiscent of what Pete Carroll and Quinn built in Seattle. This is the season Quinn's long-term vision should bear fruit.
Before the Seahawks comparisons get too out of hand, this group still must show it can coalesce. The Falcons flashed incredible individual talent -- from Beasley's league-leading sack total to Neal's rugged hitting -- but were less than the sum of their parts before improving late in the season. From Week 14 though the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons doubled their turnover rate and gave up 19.3 points per game, a number that would rank as a top-10 defense. They were even more effective through three quarters of the Super Bowl, and they're counting on a deeper roster to hold up better next time around -- if there is a next time around.
In the immortal words of Atlanta legend Big Boi, everyone needs a backup plan to the backup plan. Dimitroff believes he's set.
Following the Super Bowl, Dimitroff said the team didn't have any "major holes" on the roster. After the draft and free agency, Dimitroff said this was his strongest roster in a decade. It's not bragging if it's true.
There are no obvious weaknesses in the depth chart, each position constructed with logic and depth. The Falcons defense essentially didn't lose anyone of significance from their Super Bowl squad, with the possible exception of Freeney, and there is some optimism even he'll return. The team scooped up free-agent defensive tackle Dontari Poe, will see quality defensive end Adrian Clayborn return from injury and added two promising draft picks in McKinley and linebacker Duke Riley. It's taken too long to mention that the team's best defensive player -- cornerback Desmond Trufant -- will be back after tearing his pectoral muscle in Week 9 last season. (The Falcons showed their faith in Trufant with a monster five-year deal in April.)
The additions bolster a group that has safety in numbers along the defensive line and in the secondary. The pass rush will attack in waves: Beasley, McKinley, Clayborn, Brooks Reed, Derrick Shelby and Courtney Upshaw are all able to play the edge. Defensive tackle is similarly deep because the ends are so versatile, able to take the snaps that Jarrett, Poe and Ra'Shede Hageman don't swallow up.
New Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel will have a similarly tough time finding enough snaps for all of his quality cornerbacks. Trufant and Alford both earned long-term deals. Former second-round pick Jalen Collins flashed starter skills on the perimeter after Trufant's injury. Brian Poole played more than 800 quality snaps as a nickel back in Year 1. It's a balanced group built to survive the inevitable injuries that poke holes in pretty offseason rosters.
The defense as a whole could be viewed as a backup plan. The unit's talent and depth will provide a safety net to the Super Bowl hangover or understandable regression to the mean from the high-flying offense. The Falcons managed to win the NFC South and earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC with a defense that ranked 27th in defensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. That's a low bar to clear.
Atlanta's defense only needs to upgrade to average in order to provide a huge boost. And it can be so much better than average. For Dan Quinn, Deion Jones and the entire Atlanta defensive unit, last season's Super Bowl appearance was ahead of schedule. Now is their time.