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Falcons Rookie Recap: Why General Manager Terry Fontenot 'Loves' 2022 Draft Class

From record-setting rookie seasons to a pair of players who never saw the field, there's a lot to talk about regarding the Atlanta Falcons' 2022 draft class ... and also a lot to "love," according to general manager Terry Fontenot.

The first year of coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot's tenure with the Atlanta Falcons was centered around building a foundation, as a veteran-laden team finished 7-10 season, staying in the playoff mix all throughout but clearly lacking ingredients.

Relative to expectations, it was a successful season - but the Falcons had to add young impact players during the draft, making it a critical offseason for Smith, Fontenot and the rest of the scouting department.

Now, with the duo's second season in the books, the 2022 draft class has had a 17-game slate to make a statement ... and the early returns are promising.

Despite being ranked just No. 13 by ESPN for rookie productivity, Atlanta witnessed a pair of players - first-round receiver Drake London and fifth-round running back Tyler Allgeier - break franchise records for receptions (72) and rushing yards (1,035) in a rookie season, respectively.

But those two were far from the lone first-year players who impressed.

Second-round outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie finished third on the team in quarterback hits with 11, adding three tackles for loss, two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles across 16 games.

Fellow second-round pick Troy Andersen started the final four games of the season at inside linebacker and ranked fifth in tackles with 69. He also collected three tackles for loss and drew high praise for his work on special teams.

Third-round quarterback Desmond Ridder had an efficient four-game tryout at season's end, going 73 of 115 for 708 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He illustrated a strong rapport with London and guided the Falcons to a pair of wins to close the year.

After him, third-round outside linebacker DeAngelo Malone flashed despite seeing few defensive snaps, logging four tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and a sack in 15 games. He was a healthy scratch on two occasions.

Allgeier was joined on Day 3 by left guard Justin Shaffer and tight end John FitzPatrick, both of whom spent a majority of the year on injured reserve and failed to see the field during the regular season.

The Falcons had eight picks, six of whom played, five (all but Malone) started at least one game, four started at least four games, three carried Atlanta's offense after the Week 14 bye, two made franchise history and one has a chance to become the long-term answer under center.

And yet, none of that is what truly stands out to Fontenot, who raved about Atlanta's draft class - starting first and foremost with its intangibles.

"I think what we love about this class and the previous one is the character the mindset, the mentality, the way the guys approach and the way they compete," Fontenot said. "And so, I think the mindset of the class, we saw that early on, just the way the guys work, the way they compete - that's why we brought them in. But I think that's the part that you saw early on."

Those were the traits the Falcons identified during the pre-draft process and were quickly able to confirm throughout offseason programs and into the thick of the season.

It's something Smith stressed while Atlanta trudged through a stretch of six losses in seven games to start the season's second half - the coaching staff learned a lot about how the rookies responded to adversity and saw plenty of encouraging signs.

One such example is how hard Andersen and Malone played on special teams. At Montana State, Andersen was a two-way star who earned FCS Defensive Player of the Year honors, while Malone won the same award for Conference USA at Western Kentucky ... and yet neither had any qualms about accepting their special teams role, instead playing their hearts out and making their presence felt.

"Even early on, if a player's not playing as much on defense - talk about a guy like Troy or a guy like DeAngelo, you go watch any game and (DeAngelo) is running down on kickoff, knocking the hell out of people, because he's just a tough, physical, competitive player," said Fontenot.

Perhaps most important is that these qualities aren't just a player-by-player instance; whether it's developing linebackers and special teamers like Andersen and Malone or the team's No. 1 receiver in London, the same "tough, physical, competitive" characteristics are visible.

These traits don't show up in the box score, but they stick out in a big way on tape - just look at London's performance in the season finale victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The 21-year-old London had six receptions for a career-high 120 yards, battling through an injury to have his first 100-yard performance ... but that wasn't Fontenot's biggest takeaway.

"Even when you're looking at Drake, the play I get most excited about this last game is him digging out, blocking in the run game and the physicality he plays with," Fontenot shared.

London was drafted No. 8 overall - the Falcons expected him to be one of those young impact players they desperately needed. The same is true for several of his classmates.

But how about the undrafted free agents?

Smith singled out defensive tackle Timmy Horne, signed post-draft out of Kansas State, and cornerback Dee Alford, who came over after one season in the Canadian Football League, as two players who ascended during their first NFL season.

Both guys were forced to fight their way onto the roster during training camp - competitiveness isn't even a question.

And really, it's players like Horne and Alford who've helped build the foundation that Smith and Fontenot set out to establish: one where nothing is guaranteed, but rather earned each day.

As a result, even though the rookie class was brought in with high hopes of being impactful early, nobody - not even London - was handed a spot ... because that's simply the culture this regime is trying to build.

"Coach is going to play the best players, and we're not going to play players just because they're young (and) talented," Fontenot stated. "The best players are going to get jerseys. But what you love about this class is even when their number hasn't (been) called on offense or defense, they're doing everything else that they need to do to get on the field."

Whether it's "knocking the hell out of people" on special teams or "digging out, blocking in the run game," Atlanta's rookies illustrated a single shared characteristic - or maybe several.

The mindset.

The mentality.

The approach.

The competitiveness.

The fight.

In essence, the traits that Smith and Fontenot are trying to build the Falcons franchise around were fully present in the 2022 class ... and so was the on-field impact.

There were names made, records set and identities built - and for that, there's a whole lot to "love" about the Falcons' most recent crop of rookies.

You can follow Daniel Flick on Twitter @DFlickDraft

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