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2017 NFL Draft: Despite last year’s success, the Falcons aren’t finished at linebacker

After not re-signing three linebackers in March, the young group looks light on paper. A strong side linebacker and productive special teams contributor is missing.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

After enduring abysmal linebacker play from 2013 to 2015, the Falcons needed to make serious adjustments. Starting undrafted free agents Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu resulted in disastrous outcomes. Signing Justin Durant didn’t provide much of an upgrade. In order for the defense to show actual improvement, they needed two capable three-down linebackers. Whether it was being aggressive in free agency or drafting multiple prospects, Dan Quinn made it a clear priority.

After missing on Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, the front office drafted Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell instead. Selecting productive players in the draft is proving to be one of the regime’s strongest attributes. With Quinn having major input, the Falcons have blown everyone away with their stellar draft classes in 2015 and 2016. Jones and Campbell were immediate contributors in an improving defense.

This is the final position in my draft positional need series. Edge rusher, right guard, defensive tackle, and free safety have been dissected. When evaluating the final slot, two positions were being considered. Linebacker received the nod over tight end based on how the team is structured. Re-signing Levine Toilolo to a mid-level deal shows their confidence in keeping the same group from last season. Austin Hooper is expected to take a more featured role, while the coaching staff values Joshua Perkins as a receiving option. It would be wise to see how Hooper and Perkins develop this season. Hooper showed more than enough promise to earn a starting role.

Looking Forward

There are currently only four experienced linebackers on the roster. With Jones and Campbell entering the season as starters, there are lingering questions about the starting strong side spot and overall depth. LaRoy Reynolds is settled in as the backup middle linebacker. Quinn recently spoke about Kemal Ishmael transitioning into a full-time linebacker role. Not re-signing Sean Weatherspoon, Philip Wheeler, and Worrilow were understandable personnel decisions. They didn’t want to keep injury-prone or limited players on the roster. How the front office replaces them will be something to watch in the later rounds.

The value of a strong side linebacker has significantly decreased. With the nickel package being predominantly used, three capable cover corners are far more important than three linebackers. A starting strong side linebacker plays around 30-35 percent a game at this point. That could be a reason why Quinn moved Brooks Reed to defensive end. To make up for giving him a sizable contract, the Falcons needed to get more out of Reed. Utilizing him as a LEO in their base package ended up being a wise decision, especially when Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn were injured.

It may not be a significant need, but the defense could use another linebacker for at least depth purposes. Campbell missed five games last season. The jury is still out on him being the long-term answer at weak side linebacker. Although Campbell showed promise, his awareness needs to drastically improve. He is still relatively raw, so another year of experience should benefit him.

The focus should be directed more towards finding a strong side linebacker that can play special teams as well. Vic Beasley never ended up playing there, despite the off-season buzz. Ishamel is too undersized for the position. Adding another linebacker can help stop the run and handle kickoff coverage responsibilities, which were both issues last season. It would provide a nice boost to a young linebacker group.