The Falcons’ defense is still not very good. It’s okay to admit that aloud while still being impressed with rookies Keanu Neal and Deion Jones, and the overall state of the secondary, which has been strikingly improved. Heck, you can even praise Vic Beasley! Go on, we won’t bug you.
The upshot, here, is that the Falcons are probably not going to get considerably better by the end of the season. There’s more untapped potential for the likes of Neal, Beasley and Jones, but it’s not all going to be discovered and put to good use by Week 17, and we shouldn’t expect it to be considering that all three are playing at high levels. If the Falcons are going to get better, it’ll be because players who have thus far been lagging behind a bit get into a groove. There is no better candidate for that than rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.
Campbell, you’ll recall, was the Falcons fourth round choice in this last year’s draft, and he represented an intriguing potential upgrade for the team’s perpetually overmatched linebackers. Campbell has a ton of speed and physicality, and the chief knocks were on his instincts and readiness, which is the kind of thing a good coaching staff and playing time should be able to remedy.
Thus far, Campbell is up to 31 tackles and a forced fumble in just five games (he’s missed time due to injury), and has been the kind of mixed bag you’d expect a fourth round pick pressed into action to be. He’s shown that physicality and aggression that obviously drew the coaching staff to him, but he’s also taken some bad angles, missed a handful of tackles, and been somewhat less than an asset in coverage. None of that is overly worrisome, but it does mean he could potentially improve, even in the tiny seven game sample we have left this season.
If Campbell figures it out by the end of the year, this defense doesn’t suddenly become great. It does, however, have two good, fast young linebackers who can impact games, and that plus a solid secondary and a decent pass rush can buy you a postseason win or two, assuming you have the best offense in the NFL. I view Campbell’s development as one of the biggest story lines to watch in the weeks ahead for a Falcons team that could use all the defensive help it can get.