Going into the 2016 NFL Draft, the Falcons' need for linebacker was clear. Justin Durant was cut after one season with the team and Paul Worrilow is best suited as a backup middle linebacker. The most intriguing selection the team made in the draft was linebacker De'Vondre Campbell from Minnesota in the fourth round.
By looking at Campbell's combine measurements, it's easy to see why Dan Quinn would desperately want this athletic skill set in among the linebackers. He has the size, speed, and length to create favorable matchups in coverage against running backs and tight ends.
What's interesting with Campbell is how he athletically resembles Seattle Seahawks weakside linebacker K.J. Wright, who Dan Quinn used to coach.
Wright has the edge in weight while Campbell has the edge in raw speed, but their height and length are traits that Quinn looks for from the weakside linebacker position.
When you turn on the tape, Campbell flashes special burst, speed, and closing ability for a player his size.
pulling clips for de'vondre campbell piece and this is one my favorite plays by him pic.twitter.com/Qs5fRTzDB0— charles (@SundayFiasco) August 4, 2016
In Quinn's Cover 3 defense, the weakside linebacker is primarily designated with middle hook and flat responsibilities, depending on the alignment of the strong safety and the personnel the offense breaks the huddle with. Here's an illustration of what the looks like using the Falcons "base" 4-3 Under front.
In Campbell's first preseason game against Washington, he looked comfortable sitting in underneath coverage and attacking the receiver after the ball was caught.
And the next play.
Through one preseason game, Campbell and fellow rookie Deion Jones appear to have pretty solid chemistry when it comes to attacking outside runs. When the Falcons run their nickel looks without a strongside linebacker, the middle linebacker and weakside linebacker need to be fast and physical when playing the run. Campbell and Jones both displayed that on Thursday setting plays up for each other.
On the first play, Campbell is filling in the gap behind the tight end after Jones compresses the tight end, leaving little room to run.
In the next example Campbell takes on the outside shoulder of the blocker and Deion Jones flies in to makes a tackle for a minimal gain.
One preseason game is a small sample size, but Campbell's ability to sustain his position against an offensive guard in the second clip is a step forward for him. While he was at Minnesota, he struggled to anchor versus offensive linemen coming downhill and in space. As a 232 pound off ball linebacker, this isn't going to be his bread and butter anyways.
After Atlanta selected Campbell in the fourth round, ESPN's Vaughn McClure spoke to Minnesota's linebackers coach Mike Sherels who had this to say about Campbell:
The 6-foot-4-inch, 232-pound Campbell has the athleticism, game speed, and length to become a starting-caliber Will linebacker. But he does have the instincts?
Golden Gophers linebackers coach Mike Sherels, who played linebacker at Minnesota himself, provided an answer.
"My response to that is that there are two types of linebackers out there: there's raw, instinctive kids, and then there's the kids you have to really get in there and make sure you're really doing a good job with X, Y and Z in telling them exactly what you expect from them. De'Vondre is that second type of linebacker," Sherels said. "He's not somebody that does have great instincts. He doesn't have bad instincts. He's got average football instincts.
"But what he lacks in instincts he makes up for in want-to in making sure that he knows exactly where he needs to be and the position that he needs to be in in order to get his job done."
When Campbell quickly diagnoses plays, he has the physical ability to be a dangerous weapon attacking the football.
He's also flashed great ability to navigate through traffic and make plays on the ballcarrier. Sifting through a crowd of bodies and bringing down Ezekiel Elliott isn't an easy feat.
Like Coach Mike Sherels pointed out, De'Vondre Campbell doesn't possess the most natural football instincts. In the following clip taken from Falcons training camp, Campbell bites hard on the counter action from Tevin Coleman and greatly over-pursues leaving a massive cutback lane into the teeth of the defense.
As the sea parts, @Teco_Raww explodes through the middle for a huge gain. #FalconsCamp #Falcons pic.twitter.com/XthysUkKu9— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) August 2, 2016
Errors involving gap control and gap exchange can be fixed with repetitions and practice time and for a player like Campbell, it's going to take some time before he can truly be a force on the defensive side of the ball.
Now, no one should be surprised at this point if he gets the start week one (even though Sean Weatherspoon was more impressive than him versus Washington). However, expectations need to be tempered. Campbell was a fourth round pick for a reason and your hopes for his immediate success should be pretty low entering the season.
If Campbell and Deion Jones enter the season as the starters or earn the jobs early in the season expect a lot of variance in their play. The Falcons defense has young guys with a lot of potential, but it may take a year or two for those guys to get the experience they need to become consistently effective.
With Campbell, you'll see moments of athletic brilliance and frustrating mental lapses, but for a linebacker core that's being completely rebuilt, this is ok. Let's all hope we see plenty of play recaps like this:
Rookie DeVondre Campbell made an awesome play on a deep ball to Coleman. Broke up sure TD. He may already be best cover LB #Falcons have— Knox Bardeen (@knoxbardeen) July 28, 2016