Linebacker has long been a position of weakness for the Falcons. During the 2013 season, Atlanta’s LB corps clearly became a liability for the team. A group built around Sean Weatherspoon (who was hurt, naturally), Stephen Nicholas, and Akeem Dent unsurprisingly faltered in a big way throughout the year.
The Falcons attempted, unsuccessfully, to find replacements through the later rounds of the draft. Names like Prince Shembo, Marquis Spruill, and Yawin Smallwood came in and provided next to nothing in return. Going into the 2015 season, the LB corps was perhaps the biggest weakness on the defense.
Quinn attempted to address the position in free agency with the additions of Justin Durant and Brooks Reed. It worked to an extent, but neither ended up being anything more than an average player, and the Falcons’ LBs again were underwhelming. The most notable deficiency was in coverage: they couldn’t cover RBs or TEs at all, and teams were mercilessly taking advantage each and every week.
In the 2016 draft, the Falcons again attempted to remedy the situation by double-dipping on LBs. Deion Jones was selected in the second round, and little-known De’Vondre Campbell was selected in the fourth round. Both were impressive athletes at their position, but each had questions about whether or not they could be capable NFL starters.
Luckily for the Falcons, Jones and Campbell were capable players. They’re the biggest names in the group, but Atlanta also supplemented them with some savvy free agent depth signings. Throughout the season, Atlanta’s LB group was no longer a weakness—they were actually a strength.
Let’s take a look at each linebacker’s contribution this season and break down their game.
Starting MLB - 108 tackles, 1 FF, 3 INTs (2 TDs), 11 PD
Jones was nothing short of a dynamo at the MLB position. There were plenty of questions about whether he could play effectively at his size, but he overcame them with his freakish athleticism and physical tackling style. Jones is a smooth mover and an asset in coverage, with numbers that look more similar to a safety than an ILB. His future is bright, as Jones was undoubtedly the best rookie LB in the NFL in 2016.
Starting WLB - 48 tackles, 1 FF, 1 INT, 7 PD
Campbell got a little bit of a slow start, not playing major snaps until after Weatherspoon’s injury. But once he got the hang of things, Campbell showcased why Atlanta drafted him. He’s a large player with good coverage chops that possesses the athleticism to keep up with TEs and RBs. Campbell has impressive range and closing speed, and if he continues to improve his instincts he’ll be another above-average starter for this unit going forward.
Starting SLB - 28 tackles
SLB is not a particularly important position in Quinn’s defense, as they only play snaps in the base or in short-yardage situations. Wheeler was merely OK in this role, not providing a whole lot in terms of run-stuffing or coverage ability. This is an area the Falcons could look to upgrade with another cheap FA signing, or a mid-round draft pick.
Reserve MLB, ST - 30 tackles, 1 FR
Reynolds was a depth signing in training camp that was known as an athletic special teams ace, but not much more. The Falcons used him as their primary back-up at MLB, and he started a few games in Jones’ absence. Reynolds was actually a good reserve, filling in decently for Jones and not looking like a complete liability on the field. He’s clearly a downgrade from the starters, but he’s a valuable depth piece.
Reserve WLB, ST - 21 tackles, 2 FR, 2 PD
Worrilow took on a depth role this season with the Falcons investing highly in their young LBs. This is a much better role for him, as he’s a serviceable player when called into action in a reserve or rotational role. He’s also a solid special teamer, and his leadership and experience with the team add to his value. He may test the market, but Worrilow is a decent reserve to have around.
IR, Reserve WLB/MLB - 27 tackles
Weatherspoon started the season playing a mix of WLB and MLB as the rookies got up to speed. He was actually playing fairly well, although it’s clear that he’s lost a step and isn’t the player in coverage he once was. Unfortunately, Weatherspoon’s season was cut short and he ended up on IR after only four games. His best role is likely as a reserve/rotational player going forward, but his leadership and the swagger he brings to the team shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Falcons LB corps improved immensely from the 2015 season. Quinn is clearly invested in the “youth movement” on defense, and is starting to create a brotherhood of players that fit his “fast and physical” mantra.
Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell form the nucleus of a strong, versatile, and young LB group. They each have tremendous potential, and should only improve with more time and experience in the scheme. Atlanta also has some solid depth pieces in Reynolds, Worrilow, and Weatherspoon (should they decide to bring them back).
The only weakness of the unit is SLB Philip Wheeler, who was uninspiring at best throughout the season. Perhaps they can upgrade on that position with a mid-to-late round draft pick or a reasonable free agent signing, as SLB is a less-important position in Quinn’s defense.