Falcons DE Takkarist McKinley shows burst to lead rookie class

First-rounder Takkarist McKinley showed he could get to the quarterback, collecting six sacks and 10 QB hits. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Outside of first-round draft pick Takk McKinley, the Atlanta Falcons' 2017 draft class didn't make much of an impact.

While McKinley brought his speed and energy to the defensive line, players such as Duke Riley, Damontae Kazee, and Eric Saubert didn't find their footing in limited playing time. The Falcons even cut ties with running back Brian Hill, a fifth-round pick from Wyoming. Hill went on to play six games with the Cincinnati Bengals after playing in only one with the Falcons.

There's still plenty of time for the class to make an impact. We'll see what 2018 brings. But here's a look back at their performance in '17.

Grade: Average

Best rookie: By far, McKinley. The first-round pick from UCLA showed his explosive burst throughout the season. He finished with six sacks, one more than 2016 NFL sack champ Vic Beasley Jr. McKinley also had 10 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. McKinley had one fewer sack than Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall selection of the Cleveland Browns. Garrett played 500 snaps as a starter and McKinley played 381 snaps as a reserve.

Most improved rookie: This again is McKinley because he's the one who received the most extensive playing time. He steadily improved his technique throughout the season and showed the ability to rush off both edges after Beasley missed some time because of a hamstring injury. McKinley talked about how he refined his angle of departure and worked on countermoves rather than just trying to beat opponents with speed and power. McKinley also showed he could contribute as a run-stopper, which pleased the coaches. He's an emotional player but didn't play out of control or dirty.

Most disappointing rookie: Riley struggled early with tackling after he was thrust into a starting role at weakside linebacker. He knew it was an issue and leaned on former college teammate and starting middle linebacker Deion Jones, who struggled with his own tackling issues as a rookie in 2016 before evolving into a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Then Riley was disappointed when a meniscus tear led to knee surgery and sidelined him for four games. Riley could easily be put in the "jury is still out" category because of his injury setback. We'll see how he rebounds in Year 2, which is when coach Dan Quinn says players make the biggest leap.

Jury is still out on ...: Kazee. No one really got a chance to see the defensive back's full capabilities after he came out of San Diego State with a ball-hawking reputation. Kazee made the transition from cornerback to free safety and there was buzz about him possibly challenging for the starting job, but Ricardo Allen quickly deflected all that talk with his strong play and sharp mind. Kazee started one game in place of Allen and saw spot duty as an extra defensive back in certain situations. He did force two fumbles, one coming in special-teams coverage. Kazee is physical for his size and could be a key special-teams performer. We'll see if he gets an opportunity on defense in the future. Maybe a move back to cornerback would help his cause. The jury's also still out on Saubert, who impressed special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, and offensive guard Sean Harlow, who was inactive for every game this season.

Undrafted rookie evaluation: The Falcons had only one undrafted rookie who made a contribution and that was linebacker Jermaine Grace. He played in five games before being released and was picked up by the Indianapolis Colts. Wide receiver Reggie Davis gave the defense a good look as a scout-team player and was awarded with the special black jersey as a teammate of the week several times.