The 2017 edition of the NFL Draft is now complete and for the Atlanta Falcons, this draft class presents an opportunity to add talent to key spots on an already talented roster. Last year’s draft class was pretty rare. Four rookies stood out last season for the Falcons (Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and Brian Poole) and all four started in Super Bowl LI. It’s not often that a rookie class produces that much production from a number of individuals.
This cycle, the Falcons decided to address the linebacker position again. Ironically, the team used LSU once again as a source for another athletic linebacker in the third round. At 75th overall, the Falcons selected Duke Riley to help add more speed and athleticism to the second level of their defense. Let’s breakdown Riley’s ability.
Duke Riley Scouting Report
Weight: 232 lbs
Strengths: The comparison/similarities to Jones are accurate. Riley’s size is not ideal to many NFL defenses but in Atlanta’s particular scheme, he’s what the system looks for. Riley tested very well at the Combine by posting the second fastest 40-time amongst linebackers and the fifth best in the 3-cone drill. Riley, like Jones, never really came into his own until his senior season. He posted career-highs this past season in tackles with 93 (1st on the team), nine tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and an interception. Riley is very good in coverage with the ability to open his hips and mirror running backs and tight ends.
As the 2016 season progressed, so did his effectiveness. Riley is able to read and diagnose plays before they actually play out. Because of that benefit, Riley is able to shoot gaps on run plays and sniff out screen plays. He was also used at times on delayed blitzes and has the capability of getting home in the backfield. As a tackler, he will never be mistaken as one of the best, but is rarely undisciplined in that aspect by applying proper wrap up instead of going for the hit stick. Riley carved a niche early in his collegiate career with quality special teams play. Something that will likely translate over to the Falcons special teams unit.
Weaknesses: Riley’s play strength is in question as he has a hard time of shedding blocks. Once most blockers get their hands on him properly, Riley is just about out of the play altogether. Filtering through “trash” (or number of blockers in front of him) is not something he is known for at the moment. At times, Riley is a little over aggressive with his pursuit angles and can overrun the play. Some are also weary that his one season of production may be just that, one year of production. If Riley is capable, he will have to prove that he is more than just a college linebacker who was able to put together useful traits in his only year under the microscope.
Conclusion: Taking Riley in the third round was an interesting move by the head coach Dan Quinn and the Falcons. Based on his skill set and his frame, Riley is destined to be the ‘Will’ linebacker in the Falcons defense. Quinn has already stated that he will see time at both ‘Mike’ and ‘Will’ this season but with Jones being the better athlete of the two and better at fighting blockers, Riley may be better utilized on the outside to keep him clean.
Adding to the linebacker group was a key focus for the Falcons in this draft. Bringing Riley in gives the corps even more athleticism and speed. As the unit spends most time in nickel sets, Quinn will incorporate more looks with Riley and Jones on the field at once. Which means there will be two identical, fast linebackers that opposing offenses will have to worry about. On an LSU defense with the 6th overall pick in safety Jamal Adams, and fellow draftees Kendall Beckwith, Davon Godchaux, and Tre’Davious White, Riley was voted captain of the entire unit. That shows the type of impact Riley had on LSU in 2016. Riley may turn out to be one of the steals of the draft with his upside. Along with Jones, Campbell, Kemal Ishmael, and LaRoy Reynolds, the Falcons linebacking unit just improved considerably.