After suffering from poor linebacker play for a long time, the Falcons are starting from scratch on rebuilding their massive defensive hole. The outside linebacker position has stood out in particular based on the lack of stability. Sean Weatherspoon was expected to develop into a stellar three-down linebacker, before injuries derailed his career. Joplo Bartu was overwhelmed in run support and failed to handle the physicality of the NFL. Injuries caught up to Justin Durant, who also lost a step last season.
After missing out on Danny Trevathan, the front office desperately needed to draft multiple linebackers, and they did so. Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell provide plenty of upside and speed for a sluggish front seven. While Jones attempts to insert himself as the long-term starter at middle linebacker, Campbell will likely compete for a starting job in 2017. There are several questions surrounding outside linebacker. Here are the players that will receive meaningful snaps, handle special teams responsibilities, or battle for a roster spot.
Vic Beasley: Starting strong-side linebacker
It shouldn't be surprising to see Beasley utilized as a linebacker. The explosive edge rusher is undersized and can't handle full-time duties at defensive end, but is a truly dynamic athlete. Dan Quinn will give him more opportunities to contribute rather than only playing him in their nickel package. By adding muscle and watching Von Miller, Beasley is embracing the new challenge.
The one surprise from this move involves Brooks Reed. Atlanta spent a considerable amount of money on Reed, who always seemed best suited as a strong side linebacker within a 4-3 scheme. That doesn't seem to be the case following Beasley's promotion. Reed will likely compete for pass-rushing opportunities or stealing snaps at middle linebacker. Everyone will be watching the first round pick's development closely this season. With a fully healthy shoulder, added muscle, and potential better matchups, Beasley's upside needs to turn into consistent production.
Philip Wheeler: Competing to start at weak-side linebacker
The versatile linebacker was re-signed following a promising two-month stint. He was used on blitz packages, along with replacing Durant at weak side linebacker during the final month of the season. Wheeler showed flashes of being effective on blitzes and consistently made open-field tackles (except on this touchdown run by Adrian Peterson). He deserved a one-year contract for providing much-needed linebacker depth.
Wheeler will surprisingly compete for a starting position. The front office failed to sign or draft a surefire starter. Due to constant rotation within the front seven, Wheeler may only play in their base defense for run stopping purposes. His poor coverage ability led to Miami releasing him after two seasons. Being listed as a starter in Quinn's defense doesn't necessarily mean playing forty to fifty snaps a game. Based on the limited options, Wheeler seems like the favorite going into training camp.
Sean Weatherspoon: Competing to start at weak-side linebacker
It was nearly fifteen months ago when the Arizona Cardinals signed Weatherspoon. Thomas Dimitroff's admiration for the former first round pick didn't translate into re-signing him for the 2015 season. A hamstring injury in training camp and never fitting in Arizona's 3-4 scheme made him expendable. He is back in Atlanta on a one-year "prove it" deal.
Don't rule out the possibility of him earning a starting spot. His speed and range makes him an ideal fit. Can Weatherspoon's body hold up? It hasn't held up as a starter, since Atlanta's memorable 2012 season. Durant's release was mostly based on his inability to stay healthy. Would they really sign a less durable linebacker to replace him? Weatherspoon will certainly compete for the weak-side linebacker opening, but it's highly unlikely that he'll receive consistent snaps. Regardless of what happens, the fan favorite will contribute in some manner. His team-first mentality has been well-received so far.
De'Vondre Campbell: Key backup
Based on his lack of awareness, Campbell will likely need multiple seasons to develop into a starting-caliber linebacker. As a junior college transfer, Campbell is still finding his niche as an overall player. He showed some flashes as a pass rusher, but Quinn seems focused on building him into a complete weak-side linebacker. Campbell's speed and coverage ability makes him an intriguing prospect. He took on major responsibilities playing within a difficult Big Ten conference.
Similar to Jones, Campbell was considered as a slight reach. Quinn's ability to coach up both linebackers will be critical for the Falcons' rebuilding defense. Expectations should be marginal for Campbell's rookie season. Expect him to contribute heavily on special teams and potentially take some snaps within their nickel package depending on his pre-season performances. Below average instincts was one of Campbell's biggest weaknesses on every scouting report. It's nearly impossible to make drastic improvements on such a complex skill in one year. That will likely prevent him from earning a starting job until 2017.
Tyler Starr: Competing for a roster spot
Starr is one of Quinn's developmental projects. Andrew Hirsh of Atlanta Falcons.com spoke with Quinn about player development, and the hybrid linebacker was the first name mentioned. It's difficult to see where Starr fits in their scheme. He is undersized as a pass rusher, yet too big to cover large acres of space.
The coaching staff will continue working with the former seventh round pick. Could Starr develop into a dependable contributor on special teams? A situational pass rusher role could work, if the coaching staff were convinced by his improvement. Starr is a difficult player to judge, due to his his lack of game tape. His past pre-season performances suggest that a situational pass rusher role best suits him. Quinn isn't afraid to convert players into new positions, as Ricardo Allen and Ra'Shede Hageman are prime examples. For now, Starr can be considered as a strong-side linebacker.