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Reeling Falcons need to uncover what they have in 2019 draft class

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Qadree Ollison strutted through the Atlanta Falcons' locker room Monday wearing a bright smile, grateful for a chance that technically hadn't even come yet.

The rookie running back and fifth-round draft pick from Pittsburgh seemed poised to get a chance on offense at some point this season after flashing during the preseason -- or at least get a look on special teams. But Ollison has yet to be active for a game.

"I just have to be patient and really wait for my opportunity," Ollison said. "I have to keep getting better every day in practice, and I really do get better every day. I'm in a situation where I feel like I'm blessed just to be able to watch. But whenever my number is called, I'm definitely going to be ready."

Maybe Ollison, a 6-foot-1, 232-pound back ideal for short-yardage situations, finally will get a chance in the second half of the schedule as the 1-7 Falcons try to find a way to salvage the season. Coach Dan Quinn vowed to continue the fight, although the outlook for a dramatic turnaround is bleak. That's why it would seem wise for Quinn and his assistants -- regardless of their coaching futures -- to start taking a closer look at younger, underdeveloped players to see if any of them are capable of providing a spark.

The process already started, in a sense, due to injury. Fourth-round pick Kendall Sheffield was thrust into the starting lineup at cornerback after veteran Desmond Trufant suffered a toe injury. Sheffield started the last three games, averaging 61 snaps per game.

"When I first got here, I was playing a lot of corner and nickel, so I was just trying to grow in those two positions," Sheffield said. "In special teams [kick return], I've been growing in that position as well. I'm just doing anything that they've asked me to do and do it at 100 percent."

Quinn has been impressed.

"We've seen him outside," Quinn said of Sheffield. "You've seen him at nickel. You've seen him as a kick returner. Getting this kind of experience to develop, man, you can't put a price on that and see how a guy will develop."

Sheffield probably ranks as the most pleasant surprise out of the team's seven-man 2019 draft class, although he insisted from the outset he was a first-round talent that got overlooked. The Falcons, of course, expected immediate contributions from their first-round offensive linemen in right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary. But Lindstrom broke his right foot in the season opener and is currently on injured reserve. He's itching for the opportunity to return, but Quinn said Monday there is no update on Lindstrom's possible return just yet.

McGary -- who underwent a minor heart procedure in the preseason and then suffered a significant knee sprain -- has had an up-and-down season, as expected for a rookie. But if McGary learns to get his hands on defenders early, he'll thrive more often in pass protection.

"It's good to see McGary bounce back like he has," Quinn said. "His physicality shows up. He's had some great challenges already early on in his rookie year, but to see him answer and respond, see that kind of physicality jump out, that's been a good thing."

The two other members of the draft class currently on the roster are defensive lineman John Cominsky, a fifth-round pick who had seen spot duty at defensive end before spraining his ankle against Seattle, and cornerback Jordan Miller, a guy who turned heads with his preseason play then recovered a fumble on special teams during his first game action in Week 5.

The seventh member of the class -- receiver/return specialist Marcus Green -- didn't make the 53-man roster.

So far as a group, the drafted rookies have started 12 games and played 746 offensive and defensive snaps combined, led by McGary's 418 snaps in eight starts. Sheffield has played the most defensive snaps of the draftees with 224 snaps and three starts. He's also played the most on special teams in the group with 108 snaps as a return specialist and coverage guy.

Miller averages 13 special-teams snaps per game and is itching for an opportunity to prove himself on defense. He is a lanky cornerback who showed a lot of confidence in the preseason, even asking to challenge star Julio Jones in practice.

"I feel like I'm developing well going against a great player every day," Miller said. "If I think back to May to where I am today, I think I'm way better. Where have I grown the most? Just patience at the line of scrimmage and using my hands less, getting less penalties than I did in the beginning of practice."

Miller may get a chance to get in the defensive backfield based on some of the coverage mistakes that continue to show up in the secondary.

When healthy, Cominsky should continue to get looks at defensive end -- especially since the Falcons seem to have low expectations for pass-rusher Vic Beasley after putting him on the trade block. As for

As for Ollison, he might be caught in a number's game even with backup running back Ito Smith currently recovering from a concussion. Ollison's time will come, but he might have to be patient.

Quinn explained why Ollison hadn't seen the field.

"He's in a deep running back room, so going into it, at the end of the preseason, we even played him some at fullback, and then we added Keith Smith onto that side," Quinn explained. "We're working on him. He's developing hard. You guys don't get to see him, obviously, because he's been inactive so far on Sundays, but it's more a byproduct of the room.

"We didn't have Brian Hill up all the time, and he's somebody that's earned more playing time as it's gone. Ito [Smith] and Brian [Hill], it's been a hard rotation to crack."