FLOWERY BRANCH — The Atlanta Falcons have made a commitment to rookie starters on defense that is especially rare for a first-place team.
Four rookies are expected to start on defense when Atlanta plays at Philadelphia on Sunday. Safety Keanu Neal, linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell and nickel back Brian Poole were on the field for the first snap in last week’s win at Tampa Bay.
Defensive coordinator Richard Smith said he has never seen so many rookie starters.
“Never in my career, and I’ve been in the league for 29 years,” Smith said Wednesday. “I’ve never seen that.”
It’s no surprise that Neal, the first-round pick from Florida, is starting. The team likely would have been happy if Jones and Campbell earned a share of playing time. The biggest surprise is Poole, who was undrafted from Florida but made an immediate impact in training camp.
According to figures provided by the Falcons, Neal leads all NFL rookies with 57 total tackles and Jones is second with 51. Those are the leading totals for all Falcons players.
The youth movement also includes second-year linebacker Vic Beasley Jr., who leads the team with 7.5 sacks, and second-year cornerback Jalen Collins, who might start Sunday if Desmond Trufant is held out with a shoulder injury.
Starting defensive tackle Grady Jarrett also was a 2015 pick.
Those are the key names in a makeover on defense that was expected when coach Dan Quinn, the former Seattle defensive coordinator, was hired last year.
The strong showing by this year’s draft class helped earn general manager Thomas Dimitroff a new three-year contract on Monday.
“I think having the picks we had and where we were picking, we felt very confident that we were going to put together a good group of guys,” Dimitroff said Monday. “… We’re real happy with how they’re producing for this year’s class.”
Tight end Austin Hooper could give the 2016 draft class a fifth starter this week. Jacob Tamme is expected to miss his second straight game with a shoulder injury. Levine Toilolo started for Tamme last week.
Neal said the first-year players talked in rookie camp following the NFL draft about the possibility so many could start this season.
“I mean, we talked about it,” Neal said. “That’s always a cool experience, being on the field at the same time. We’ve got the opportunity. Now we’ve just got to play.”
Injuries made it difficult to get the four on the field at the same time in the first half of the season.
Neal missed the first two games following minor knee surgery in the preseason. Jones and Campbell missed time with ankle injuries. But it was clear from the start of the season Quinn thought the rookies deserved to start.
“There are many coaches out there that wouldn’t do that,” Dimitroff said. “They’d wait until the sixth, seventh game of the season. We were very forward about allowing these guys to have a lot of important, interesting reps early on, and I think it really helped their confidence.”
Smith said he likes the “maturity level” of the rookies. He said he sees no sign that the long season is affecting the new starters.
“It’s a long season and they’re not used to playing but right now we’ve played 13 games and I don’t see it in their eyes,” Smith said. “I love their work ethic and the way they work. I like their demeanor if something happens and they do make a mistake, they’re ready to go on with the next play. Overall they all have a bright future.”
NOTES: The Falcons used their indoor practice facility due to poor air quality outside. Winds blew smoke from wildfires in north Georgia over Flowery Branch and south over Atlanta on Wednesday and Thursday. … DE Dwight Freeney (quad) joined practice after being held out on Wednesday. RB Tevin Coleman (hamstring), CB Desmond Trufant (shoulder) and Tamme (shoulder) did not practice. Quinn said Coleman and Trufant could still play this week if able to practice on Friday. He said Tamme is “likely” out.