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Falcons rookie defenders adjusting well to the NFL

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Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell shared some thoughts on adjusting to the pros at the midway point of the season.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball in this year’s draft, and so far, that investment is paying off substantially. Safety Keanu Neal and linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell have all earned starting roles, and so far they’re all exceeding expectations.

Neal, who missed the early part of the season as he recovered from a minor knee scope, has settled in nicely. Pro Football Focus has Neal ranked as the NFL’s eighth-best rookie, and Mel Kiper ranked Neal No. 7 among all rookies. Kiper ranked second rounder Deion Jones as the 16th-best rookie in this class so far.

Campbell, as a fourth rounder, earned the starting role on the weakside, and he’s automatically exceeding expectations for that reason alone. Campbell noted that the rookies have made some mistakes, but they’re learning, thanks to the coaching staff.

“We’re young, so we make mistakes, and it’s things that we still have to correct, because a lot of the situations that we’ve been put in, a lot of us are seeing it for the first time,” Campbell said Friday. “So it’s kind of like adjusting on the go, and I think our coaching staff has been really good about being patient with us and realizing that we’re going to make mistakes, but the big thing is that we correct them and not make them again.”

Jones credits the veteran linebackers with teaching the young players how to handle their business as professionals.

“I have to say Worrilow, Spoon, Phil — a lot of the older guys who are in that room — they’re constantly forcing it, like, you have to be a pro every day,” Jones said. “And that’s film study, recovery, working out -- it’s everything takes a part in it.”

Campbell agreed that leaning on the experience of the veteran players and the linebackers coach, Jeff Ulbrich, has helped ease his transition from college to the NFL.

“I try to pick [Ulbrich’s] brain on strategies for recovery, strategies for studying film, just how to become a pro and learn from him, on top of guys like [Paul] Worrilow, LaRoy [Reynolds], Phil [Wheeler], [Sean Weatherspoon] Spoon — guys who have been in the league for several years and who have experience that they can reflect on,” Campbell said. “I try to pick everyone’s brain and get as much information as I can.”

It was interesting that all three of the rookies had different answers to explain how they’re all acclimating so well to the NFL. For Neal, it’s been the communication on the field.

Just communicating. Playing within ourselves, not doing too much, just doing our job,” Neal said. “Those are really the keys — just communicating, playing the defense and playing our ball. Not trying to do too much. Just playing our game.”

That’s worked for Jones, who has two big interceptions on the season. One, against the Saints, was returned for a touchdown, and the other was very nearly returned for a score against the Chargers last week.

Jones said his experience in college as well as Ulbrich’s leadership helped prepare him to function well in coverage at this level.

“The defense I played in at LSU, I pretty much played a lot of coverage and man, and then this defense here, they incorporate some of that, too,” Jones said. “With the help of Coach [Ulbrich], who helped me refine the little things I had from college, I feel pretty good at covering people.”

One thing that fans may not be aware of is that, by this point of the season, rookies have been at it nonstop since the beginning of their final college season.

You have the college season, then prep for the NFL Combine and pro days begins immediately after the bowl games are completed. It’s a whirlwind of a spring right up through the draft, and then players disperse to their new teams and hit the ground running with OTAs and minicamp.

The Falcons haven’t had a bye yet, but none of these players seem to have hit the dreaded “rookie wall.”

“We do a really good job here of taking care of the rookies. A lot of people talk about the “rookie wall,” but we don’t have that here,” Neal said. “We’ve got a lot of things set up for recovery here. So I think that rookie wall is really a preconceived deal. If you believe in it and believe it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. But we do a really good job here of keeping that from happening.”

Jones said the veteran linebackers gave him guidance about keeping his body fresh and helped prepare him for how physically challenging an NFL season is.

“Because of the older guys telling me how rigorous the season is, I feel pretty good that those guys actually told me that, and I’ve been taking the initiative to make sure I feel fresh every week,” Jones said.

Playing in the NFL is physically taxing, and Campbell said it’s just not possible to be fully healthy as an NFL player outside of the offseason.

Still, he’s learned how to keep his body in the best physical condition it can be in during the season.

“You’re never really healthy in this game except for in the offseason, so of course we’re all beat up,” Campbell said. “But that’s part of being a professional, just learning how to take care of your body and take the necessary steps toward getting back healthy and being in the best possible condition you can be in every single day.”

The Falcons needed to add talent on defense though this draft, and now that we’re near the midpoint of the season, it seems like the players they brought in have been good additions.