Atlanta will be trying to buck the bad luck trend of not returning to the playoffs except in rare instances in 2010, 2011, and 2012 only twice in team history. Heading into 2017, the Falcons have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. Takkarist McKinley fills a pressure player need opposite Vic Beasley. He was unable to participate in rookie mini-camp or OTAs while recuperating from right shoulder surgery in March. Recovery time is four to six months. He may be ready for preseason action. The injury not only held him back, but also the NFL rule because UCLA classes were still in session. McKinley is studying his playbook and rehabbing. The former Bruin brings a nonstop motor and edge explosiveness to the Falcons’ front seven. His extreme quickness and burst off a blocker fits into the blitz and physical force packages that Atlanta covets. Duke Riley has impressed during OTAs with his speed, athletic ability, competitiveness, and communication to grasp defensive concepts quickly. The coaches feel Riley is further along at this point than last year’s two rookie starters, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Riley was drafted to fill the weakside linebacker role putting Jones, Campbell, and Riley on the field at the same time. Campbell will move to the Sam linebacker spot. The Falcons drafted Riley after trading down two spots and picking up two additional fifth round picks. He will also be counted on to be a core special teams’ coverage player. Sean Harlow will compete for the starting right guard position. He impressed the staff at mini-camp with his football intelligence and ability to grasp information quickly. Harlow will have to beat out Wes Schweitzer, sixth round pick in 2016, for Chris Chester’s old spot. Damontae Kazee played corner for the Aztecs but Atlanta plans on giving him work at free safety as well as cornerback. As with any secondary move, Kazee must work on training his eyes and becoming more disciplined in coverage. Film study and playbook commitment will be key to getting on the field early. The Kazee move lets 2016 rookie standout safety, Keanu Neal, play closer to the box. Brian Hill brings a physical running style to the Falcons’ backfield. The former Cowboy is a light-footed violent runner with good contact balance. He brings a different skill set to the combo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The scouting staff noticed Hills’ toughness without the ball. The one-cut vertical runner will also be counted on to contribute on special teams. Has been catching the ball well out of the backfield. Eric Saubert is a projected third tight end in sub packages, but has impressed early with his speed and ability to catch the ball. A rarity in college football, Saubert played for nonscholarship IAA Drake where he was able to hold down a part-time job while playing football. The Illinois native worked for a moving company in Des Moines, Iowa. The Falcons recognize there will be major adjustment from the Bulldogs, but feel his physical traits and work ethic will help get him on the field early in his career. GRADE: ABOVE AVERAGE.
FREE AGENCY: The Falcons re-signed their own, headed by Levine Toilolo (TE), Kemal Ishmael (FS), LaRoy Reynolds (IB), and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (CB). Defensive end Jack Crawford was added as a sub package pressure player. Dontari Poe signed a one-year deal to give the Falcons a wide-bodied inside run stuffer.
NOTABLE UNDRAFTED COLLEGE FREE AGENTS: Andreas Knappe (Connecticut) OT, Alek Torgersen (Pennsylvania) QB, Reggie Davis (Georgia) WR, and Taylor Reynolds (James Madison) CB.