While Atlanta was busy trading up during Day 1 of the 2017 NFL Draft, they instead opted to trade down on Day 2. After swapping picks with the Bills, the Falcons made a somewhat surprising selection in LSU LB Duke Riley.
While there was certainly some interest there from Atlanta, I think most of us felt that the Falcons were more likely to target a guard or perhaps another defensive lineman with their Day 2 pick. Instead, they went with the athletic and versatile Riley, who actually seems to resemble last year’s 2nd-round selection, Deion Jones.
In terms of value, Riley had a third-round grade from me, and was generally viewed as a Day 2 talent. Apparently the Falcons thought so too, as they selected him in front of several other intriguing prospects—including the popular G Dorian Johnson. All that considered, how does the addition of Duke Riley impact the Falcons roster?
Clearly, it’s an infusion of youth and athleticism at the LB position. The team moved on from two of last season’s depth players early this offseason—Paul Worrilow and Sean Weatherspoon. That left a void behind presumptive starters Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell that was only partially addressed with the news that Kemal Ishmael would be switching to LB full time. The team also has special teams standout LaRoy Reynolds on the roster, who played a rotational role filling in for Jones throughout the 2016 season.
Quinn has already said that he expects Riley to play the WLB (weakside LB, or WILL) role in the defense, and has expressed interest in having Riley, Jones, and Campbell on the field at the same time. In that scenario, it’s likely that Campbell would move to SLB (strongside LB, or SAM), a position that was played by Philip Wheeler during 2016.
A base package with Riley at WLB, Jones at MLB, and Campbell at SLB would be an incredibly athletic and versatile group. Not to mention that Campbell would be an enormous upgrade over the veteran Wheeler, who barely made an impact with his snaps at SLB during the 2016 season.
Riley will likely compete with Campbell during training camp for the starting WLB role, and should become an integral part of the Falcons’ special teams units early in his career. His addition probably means that Atlanta is finished adding to the LB corps this season, and could potentially push some of the lower-level LBs (Josh Keyes, for instance) off the roster.
The pick shows a clear commitment to improving a defense that struggled throughout the early part of the 2016 season. If they can build upon the progress the unit showed in the 2016 playoffs—along with an infusion of young, athletic talent in the front seven—the Falcons could potentially have a very dangerous defense in 2017 and beyond.
Despite the surprising selection, fans have to be enthusiastic about the focus on improving the front-seven with two exciting players in Takkarist McKinley and Duke Riley. Not to mention, the Falcons were able to select Riley after trading down 12 spots and picking up two additional 5th-round picks.
How do you feel about Riley’s addition to the Falcons’ LB corps? Do you think he will help the Falcons’ defense improve measurably in 2017?