How did top Falcons players size up on their Signing Days?
For this Atlanta Falcons roster, many different roads — some straight, others winding — led to Super Bowl LI.
As the upstart NFC champs prepare to take on the New England Patriots on Sunday, just a few days removed from thousands of high-school players reaching another stepping stone on National Signing Day, FOX Sports South looked back at how key Falcons players were viewed coming out of the prep ranks.
Headlining a 2008 class of receivers that included A.J. Green and Michael Floyd, the 6-foot-3 target was Alabama's most explosive offensive threat from Day 1. After clocking in more than 2,600 yards and 14 touchdowns in the Crimson Tide's run-heavy system, the Falcons bet the farm on Jones, trading five draft picks to give Matt Ryan a bona fide No. 1 target.
The NFL's prospective MVP has traveled a long way since graduating from Philadelphia's Penn Charter as an under-the-radar triple-option quarterback.
Boston College coaches saw plenty in the lanky teenager, though, and they hit a home run in the 2003 recruiting class. After racking up more than 9,000 yards and 56 touchdowns in three seasons as a starter for the Eagles, Ryan was the first quarterback off the draft board in 2008. Now he's one win away from a Super Bowl ring.
Recruiting ranking: 3-star, No. 23 tight end nationally
Drafted: No. 8 overall in 2015
Much like Matt Ryan, Vic Beasley's path to the Super Bowl is hardly recognizable from his high-school days in Adairsville, Ga. Recruited by Dabo Swinney's staff as an "athlete" and originally slotted as a tight end, it took an early move to linebacker then defensive end for Beasley to emerge as a force. He averaged 10 sacks per season in his final three years at Clemson.
The "bust" label at the pro level has disappeared, too: the former Tiger led the league in sacks in 2016. Not bad for a three-star tight end.
"I always looked at (former All-Pro tight end) Vernon Davis because he was fast, and I was pretty fast," Beasley told ESPN in December. "I definitely saw myself as him."
Interior offensive linemen annually fly under the radar, but do not allow Mack's two-star status to fool you. The Santa Barbara, Calif., native held offers from in-state powers USC and UCLA before heading to Cal to pave holes for Marshawn Lynch.
The Browns made him a first-round pick in 2009, but after grading out as the second-best center in the NFL this season, per Pro Football Focus, he's living up to his new five-year deal with Atlanta.
Recruiting ranking: 4-star, No. 7 running back nationally
College: Florida State
Drafted: No. 103 overall in 2014
The typical five- or four-star running back dominates the prep level for a few years before conjuring smiles and breaking hearts on National Signing Day. Freeman walked a different path. A backup for most of his high-school career in ultra-competitive Florida 6-A football, it wasn't until the summer before his senior year that the 5-foot-8 speedster started turning heads.
Before logging back-to-back 1,000-yard NFL seasons, Freeman rewarded Jimbo Fisher's staff for its faith in him; he finished his college career as part of the 2013 national championship team. Now, he's outperforming the six running backs rated ahead of him in his class.
"How many of those guys would have stayed in that high school for their senior year? Instead of being a starter somewhere else, (he was) just happy to be a part of a team," Fisher said. "He's just different."
In Clemson's slow build to the 2016 national championship, Grady Jarrett was a low-key building block.
Originally buried in a star-studded 2011 recruiting class that included five-star wide receiver Sammy Watkins and linebacker Stephone Anthony, the 6-foot son of former Falcons great Jesse Tuggle started his college path at the low end of the totem pole. He grew into a third-round draft pick and a solid anchor in the middle of a Super Bowl defense.
"The perception of me from a lot of people coming up through recruiting wasn’t really good at all," Jarrett told ESPN. "And it’s something I used to take personally."
Isaiah J. DowningIsaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor
Ryan Schraeder, Offensive Tackle
Recruiting ranking: Unranked
College: Valdosta State
Undrafted offensive linemen who did not register in recruiting rankings rarely earn five-year contracts worth up to $33 million, but that's Ryan Schraeder. The lesser-known tackle on the offensive line — former top-10 pick Jake Matthews, himself a former four-star talent, protects Matt Ryan's blindside — has blossomed into a reliable piece. Schraeder ranked 11th in the league among tackles in Pro Football Focus' grades.
Schraeder did not register in recruiting rankings because he did not play high-school football. It wasn't until he hit a dramatic growth spurt (from 5-foot-7 to 6-foot-7) before he decided to go to JUCO and then transfer to Valdosta State. He's the definition of a late bloomer.
"Every NFL scout that came to me and talked to me about him, I kept saying his best football was in front of him and he hadn’t reached his potential because it was so early in his career,” Valdosta State coach David Dean told the AJC.
Boasting prototypical size and speed, it was difficult not to notice Neal as a prep star. The Falcons' 2016 first-round pick has been a welcome addition to Dan Quinn's defense — just as he was for Will Muschamp and the Gators.
"I called him and the first thing he said was ‘you’re a freakazoid,'" a teenage Neal recalled of his recruiter at Florida, Brian White. "He said my ability to move is amazing because of my size. I’m a big, physical guy and I can play in the box, but I’m still pretty quick. So I like that name and I think it should stick with me."