After starting below average and injury prone linebackers over the past five years, the Falcons have addressed one of their biggest weaknesses over the past two drafts. Injecting speed and range was crucial in their rebuilding project. Many analysts thought Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell were selecting too early at their respective spots. Both players exceeded expectations by developing into capable three down linebackers. They are the most notable names in an extremely young linebacker unit.
Current Depth Chart
Weakside: Duke Riley
Middle: Deion Jones
Strongside: De’Vondre Campbell
Backups: LaRoy Reynolds, Josh Keyes, Jermaine Grace, Christian Tago
Although it took some time, the rookie duo started playing at a high level. Jones’ impressive play merited some Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration. His incredible speed, instincts, and cover ability makes him one of the most promising linebackers in the league. If the Super Bowl collapse didn’t occur, Jones and Grady Jarrett may have shared MVP honors.
Many rookies tend to fade as the season progresses. The 2016 second round pick managed to improve during Atlanta’s six game winning streak from December to January. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Jones’ future.
Many scouts labeled Campbell as a raw talent. Despite playing three seasons at Minnesota, he was utilized as a pass rusher at times rather than a full-time linebacker. It was remarkable to see him take on a starting role from the beginning. The lack of awareness concerns was evident during his rookie season. Campbell looked lost at times in zone coverage.
When he played in a looser role, the former Gopher was far more comfortable. Attacking plays downhill and making open field tackles proved to be his strong suit. Campbell had an inconsistent rookie season, but there were more positive than negative moments.
Their success didn’t stabilize everything. The linebacker position can always use depth, which was evident from Campbell missing five games last season. Not re-signing Paul Worrilow, Phillip Wheeler, and Sean Weatherspoon indicated that the Falcons were ready to add more talent.
Drafting Duke Riley in the third round showed Dan Quinn’s willingness to get even more faster. The weak side linebacker played with Jones at LSU. Based on being undersized and thriving off having excellent instincts, there are similarities between both players. Expect him to be an immediate contributor in Quinn’s defense.
LaRoy Reynolds will retain his place as the backup middle linebacker and special teams ace. He was the lone linebacker to be re-signed. Other than Josh Keyes, the other backups are undrafted free agents. Jermaine Grace fits Quinn’s preferences as an athletic, fluid linebacker. It will be interesting to see his transition into the NFL after being dismissed from Miami in 2016. He will need to be productive on special teams to beat out for Keyes and Christian Tago for the likely final roster spot.
How Quinn utilizes Campbell and Riley is the most interesting storyline out of this position. Campbell will likely be shifted to the strong side of their base defense. The big question comes from the nickel package, where only one other linebacker can play alongside Jones. Expect to see both players rotated during each game, unless one of them impresses or struggles in a significant manner. Riley is a natural weak side linebacker. That shouldn’t diminish Campbell’s value in the nickel package. Jones should continue taking on a full-time role, although Reynolds could be used as an extra linebacker in short-yardage situations.