FLOWERY BRANCH — Hey rookie, you’ve been drafted by the Atlanta Falcons. Maybe you signed as an undrafted free agent, but you are a long, long way from walking out the tunnel and on to the field in September.
With the Falcons holding their rookie minicamp last weekend, coaches got their first hands-on look at their new crop of young talent. All six of Atlanta’s 2017 NFL Draft selections had their contracts signed prior to camp. In addition to the guys sought after enough to be selected in the draft, another 53 undrafted or tryout players hit the field looking for the opportunity of a lifetime.
Putting pen to paper on an NFL contract had to feel good. Even if a guy wasn’t taken in the draft, he’s got a shot to make the team. Maybe one day he can even make the Pro Bowl. Plenty of players have been signed as an undrafted free agent and gone on to have successful careers in the NFL, but none of them did it overnight.
When you look at the Falcons’ roster right now as its constructed, there are very few holes to fill. If you’re Dan Quinn or Thomas Dimitroff, that’s a good problem to have. If your Brian Hill or Tyler Williams, not so much. Unlike Hill, Williams was not drafted. He is one of 27 players who were invited to the camp simply as a try out.
The Falcons enter these spring months in a better position than maybe they have ever been in. They entered last year trying to shake the headline of being the team that started out 5-0, only to finish 8-8 in 2015. The owner, Arthur Blank challenged his leadership to find three starters in last year’s draft.
They found their starters. The team adopted “the brotherhood” and went on to have one of the most successful seasons in the 50-plus years of the franchise.
Looking at the Falcons’ roster today compared to this time last year? There are fewer question marks. There a very few positions up for grabs. So, if you’re a rookie, how can you make a team that doesn’t really need you? Well, you make yourself needed, you make yourself special. You find a spot on special teams.
Throughout most of the NFL, unless you’re one of the top picks in the NFL draft, if you are making an NFL roster, you’re doing the dirty work to get there. Kickoffs, kickoff coverage, field goal unit and/or punt team. You must be fast and you must be physical.
Coach Quinn stressed the need for his new players to learn everything needed to be successful at their position but also that they needed to work closely with Keith Armstrong if they’re going to make it on the 2017 Falcons roster.
“Keith Armstrong has a number of best friends it would appear over the weekend,” said Quinn. “We had a good talk about special teams and the role. The difference between being on the 53 and being on the 46 and being in sweats on game day and having a helmet and going to battle. They all recognize that and they so badly want to go out, play and compete that they are going to find that role on teams.
“If you’re not playing offensive line and quarterback, there’s got to be a role that you can dig for. The amount of time that they put into offense and defense, we have to make sure special teams is getting that attention too.”
Armstrong is the Falcons’ special teams coordinator. He’s the guy that never gets enough credit when somebody takes a kickoff back for a touchdown, downs a punt inside the 5-yard line or when the 55-yard field goal is made as time expires to win a game.
Plenty of players have made a name for themselves in the NFL and not many of them did it without making a special teams squad first.
Wes Welker was an undrafted free agent signing by the San Diego Chargers. Initially he made the team out of training camp but was released after the first game. He was claimed through waivers by the Miami Dolphins where we made the team and was utilized as a return specialist.
It was there where Welker got more and more looks at wide receiver. Eventually, Welker drew enough attention to himself to catch the eye of the New England Patriots and was traded there in exchange for a second and seventh-round draft pick. Welker went on to be a five-time Pro Bowl selection throughout a very successful career.
Closer to home, Brian Poole made the Falcons roster last year as part of the special teams unit. Pool eventually worked his way up to being a very reliable option of the Falcons’ defensive unit in the secondary.
You can have all the speed and all the strength in the world. But if you’re going to make this Falcons’ team, if you’re going to do something special, I suggest you start by making yourself irreplaceable on special teams first.