Atlanta Falcons fans have suffered through several seasons of sub-par linebacker play. Despite the huge number of tackles, it’s clear that Paul Worrilow is a liability in coverage, while our options at weakside linebacker have been inconsistent, at best. When the team drafted both Deion Jones (2nd round) and De’Vondre Campbell (4th round), the hope was that these players could anchor the middle of the defense for years to come.
The early returns from training camp suggest both players are much faster than our previous options, and both showed well in the first preseason game. Those performances already have fans salivating at the idea of both rookies starting in 2016.
That, however, is probably the last thing the Falcons need to do.
Here are a few reasons why the Falcons should avoid starting two rookie linebackers to start the 2016 season.
Slowing the hype from a small sample size
More than anything, the biggest issue right now is that the hype for both players may be getting out of hand. Yes, both Jones and Campbell represent a significant uptick in speed. Yes, both have had very good training camps and played well in their first preseason action. Let’s keep all of this in perspective, however.
Every year, we get reports in training camp of rookies who have played very well, yet when the season rolls around, those reports don’t come to fruition. Does anyone remember the stories about Kevin White, the un-drafted corner out of TCU? Many of us were absolutely certain he was going to be on the roster and yet, he didn’t even make an NFL roster in 2015.
While Campbell and Jones performed well in the first preseason game, remember that 1) offenses did no game planning coming in 2) they spent most of their time against backups and special teams players. I’m not trying to diminish what they did, because I definitely liked what I saw. We just need them to do it consistently, and to begin showing that level of play against actual NFL starters.
Before we make the leap of thinking both players are ready to be full-time NFL starters, let’s wait until we have a much larger sample size.
Importance of having a veteran on the field
There are very good reasons most NFL teams are hesitant to put a bunch of rookies on the field at once. Even when those rookies perform well in camp, you’ll often see veterans get the initial start for a team - often over younger players who are more physically gifted than them.
Almost as important as the physical traits are the mental one. Particularly on defense. A veteran linebacker will read-and-react to plays faster than a rookie (most of the time). That same linebacker will also know how and where to position players before the snap, which could be the difference between a one yard gain and a ten yard gain.
Putting two rookies in the middle of the defense removes that critical component.
Rookies do learn through being on the field, but they often benefit most when they have a veteran to learn from. Learning from the “school of hard knocks” sounds great in principle, but could be very painful - especially for fans. Pairing a rookie with at least one veteran at the same position helps to ease some of those pains, and offers the opportunity to “learn on the field.”
Bringing them up-to-speed intentionally
All of which leads me to this final point: while we shouldn’t start both rookies immediately, that doesn’t necessarily mean the team should bench one for the entire season while the other takes all the snaps. The coaches can be very intentional about how they get these guys valuable experience without also exposing the entire defense at the same time.
Coach Quinn has already intimated that in his scheme, both the middle and weakside linebackers are essentially inside backers. Sean Weatherspoon has already demonstrated the ability to play both positions well, and as a veteran, he won’t be easily fooled on the field.
Perhaps you pair Weatherspoon with Jones initially, letting the veteran take the weakside spot while Jones mans the middle. Sean can still help direct the defense, also giving the rookie opportunities to learn and get valuable time on the field. Likewise, you can put Weatherspoon at the Mike and pair him with Campbell at Will. You take advantage of Weatherspoon’s veteran presence on the field, while also integrating both rookies into the games at different points in time.
It will also take pressure off of the back-end of the defense. Ricardo Allen - who has been an on-field leader this year - can focus on the alignment of the defensive secondary instead of also being distracted with having to get two rookies linebackers in place.
They will eventually start
While I’m more than excited for how Jones and Campbell have looked initially, the risk of having two rookies as our day one starters is a little too much to take. Pairing them with a vet like Weatherspoon - even if just for the first few games of the season - could get them both ready to be long-term starters, without throwing them to the wolves.
Eventually, both rookies could very well be our long-term starters. In fact, if both develop well, it may still happen in 2016. It just doesn’t need to happen immediately.