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  1. 2017 Super Bowl: Falcons hit big on draft picks to construct a winner quickly By Rob Rang The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com 7h ago • 4 min read http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/draft/news/2017-super-bowl-falcons-hit-big-on-draft-picks-to-construct-a-winner-quickly/ How the Atlanta Falcons catapulted from a .500 non-playoff club to NFC South champions and a berth in Super Bowl LI is really quite simple: They've hit it big with first-round picks. Since taking over as general manager in 2008, Thomas Dimitroff has drafted franchise cornerstones in quarterback Matt Ryan (2008), wide receiver Julio Jones (2011) and edge rusher Vic Beasley (2015). While other recent first-round picks like left tackle Jake Matthews(2014) and free safety Keanu Neal (2016) were not among the six Falcons named to this season's Pro Bowl, their stellar play so early in their careers suggests it won't be long before they too are recognized among the best at their positions. Quarterback, wide receiver, left tackle, edge rusher and safety -- a checklist of the most important positions in today's NFL. Quarterback is the most important position in all of sports and Ryan, the Pro Football Writers Association MVP, certainly deserves all of the credit he has received. in the regular season, Ryan threw for a franchise-record 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His career-high 69.9 percent completion rate is all the more impressive given that he averaged a league-high 9.26 yards per attempt. Perhaps the greatest argument against Ryan's candidacy for MVP is the wonderfully gifted Jones, who many scouts believe is the best receiver in the NFL, if not the best overall player. Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks with 15.5 (after recording just four as a rookie) would be a candidate for Breakout Player of the Year if such an award existed. The combination of Ryan, Jones and Beasley is as dynamic as any trio in the league but exceptional individual talent does not necessarily equate to victories. Historically speaking, toughness has proven every bit as critical to success in the often cold, always hard-hitting games of the playoff chase. Atlanta had developed an unflattering reputation throughout the league as lacking grit, at least since the "Dirty Birds" squad that took the team to its first Super Bowl in 1998. That is why the addition of intense, defensive-minded coach Dan Quinn, as well as highly physical free agents Alex Mack (center) and Mohamed Sanu (wide receiver) have also proven to be perfect fits. Mack, a first-round pick by Cleveland in 2009, was voted to his second straight Pro Bowl (and fourth overall). He has been the center of Atlanta's success on offense, the only one in the NFL to finish among the top five in passing (second, averaging 295.3) and rushing (fifth, averaging 120.5) yards. Sanu has not received as much fanfare, but the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder quietly posted a career-high 59 catches this season, serving as an ideal complement to the flashy Jones, just as he did to A.J. Green in Cincinnati. The Falcons found success in the middle rounds with RBs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. USATSI With Ryan and his receivers starring on the outside, the Falcons' two-headed monster of middle-round running backs Devonta Freeman(fourth round, 2014) and Tevin Coleman (third round, 2015) have been able to feast on the empty boxes, combining for 1,599 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, as well as 85 receptions for 883 yards and five scores via the air. Proponents of the idea that teams need not invest early picks (or big contracts) in running backs can point to the success Atlanta has enjoyed. Of course, Atlanta's offense has been stellar for the past several years. The key difference in this Atlanta squad is the intensity, speed and explosive hitting on defense -- which mirrors in many ways what Quinn helped build while serving as the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks. Though each player obviously comes with his own unique strengths and weaknesses, it was almost as if Quinn carried a Seahawks blueprint on how to build a defense when joining the Falcons. A closer look at how Atlanta's defense was built shows that maybe, in fact, he did, finding difference-makers with similar styles at nearly the same points in the draft. Consider that the first pick of the Dimitroff-Quinn era in Atlanta landed Beasley, who at 6-3 and 246 pounds is just five pounds lighter than edge rusher Bruce Irvin, who often played a similar role on the edge for Quinn as Seattle's first-round pick in 2012. Taking Neal in the first round a year later mirrored Seattle's strategy (and success) with Earl Thomas, the 14th overall pick in 2010. Adding an instinctive middle linebacker in the second round in Deion Jones and a raw but athletic outside linebacker in De'Vondre Campbell in the fourth is reminiscent of Seattle's selections of Bobby Wagner (second round, 2012) and K.J. Wright (fourth round, 2011). Projecting Jones and Campbell to enjoy the same success as Wagner (an All-Pro in 2016) and Wright (a Pro Bowl alternate) is admittedly premature, but Atlanta's youngsters offer similar frames and playing styles as Seattle's standout linebackers. No one should confuse Seattle's hard-hitting 6-3, 225-pound strong safety Kam Chancellor with Atlanta's 6-foot, 305-pound defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, but both former ACC stars have since outplayed their fifth-round selections after falling down the board due to questions as to their fit in a "modern" NFL defense. These birds, it seems, do flock together. Beasley's gaudy sack totals and the speed of Atlanta's young defenders have earned each plenty of hype. Defensive linemen Tyson Jackson (the No. 3 overall pick by Kansas City in 2009) and Jonathan Babineaux also deserve attention. Babineaux is the longest-tenured Falcon as a second-round pick in 2005. Veteran rushers Dwight Freeney (three), Brooks Reed (two) and Courtney Upshaw (one) have "only" contributed a combined six sacks on the season but could prove important against Tom Brady and the Patriots' quick-hitting passing attack. Unlike with the Seahawks, Quinn inherited a strong group of cover corners in former first-round pick Desmond Trufant and second-rounder Robert Alford. Flashy second-year pro Jalen Collins (second round, 2015) has lived up to his selection and possesses similar size (6-1, 203) as what Quinn and Seattle head coach Pete Carroll preached in Seattle. Alford (5-10, 186), Collins and rookie undrafted free agent Brian Poole (5-9, 213) have played well since Trufant went down with a pectoral injury in November. They and starting strong safety Robert Allen (a 5-9, 186-pounder selected in the fifth round in 2014), however, certainly are a major contrast to the Legion of Boom. That said, given the reliance in New England on the quickness of its primary pass-catchers now with Rob Gronkowski sidelined, Atlanta's secondary might match up better, proving even more the brilliance behind the roster management of Dimitroff, Quinn and the rest of the Falcons' staff.
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