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Falcons rookie outlooks: Duke Riley

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The speedy, well-coiffed linebacker is a nice fit for Dan Quinn’s defense. Is he a 2017 impact player?

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With their second selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Falcons surprised me a little and took LSU linebacker Duke Riley. That wasn’t surprising given his position (the Falcons are weak at linebacker), his speed (fast), or because he was taken early (he wasn’t), but because I thought the Falcons might prioritize a guard or safety. With a little time to digest the pick, though, it became readily apparent where Riley fits in, particularly with his #speed and #physicality.

Whether he finds his way on the field as a starter or not to begin the year, Riley should find plenty of playing time on as a weakside linebacker, with Kemal Ishmael likely either ceding the role to him outright or moving to a reserve role down the line. Riley’s going to need a little time to acclimate to the NFL like anyone else, but he’s going to be able to learn the ropes from his former LSU teammate Deion Jones, so I don’t anticipate it will take long.

That said, what’s his short-term and long-term outlook?

2017 Outlook

Games Played: 16

Riley’s going to be a key player for this Falcons team pretty much immediately, thanks to his speed, and like many others I expect him to be an absolute fixture on special teams. Not all of those games (and maybe none of them) will be official starts, but he’ll be on the field and contributing.

Stat Line: 70 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble

Again, Riley should be on the field a lot, and his speed and ability to diagnose plays is going to allow him to get to the ballcarrier frequently. That’s why I expect him to be among the top five or so players on the team in terms of tackles, and I think he’s going to have a very fine season. I’m hopeful the team will find a few opportunities to send him after opposing quarterbacks, too, because he’s certainly got the speed necessary to do that.

Role: Reserve and special teamer, eventual starter

I have a hunch the Falcons will wind up rolling with Ishmael as their nominal starter, because he’s a physical, intriguing player in his own right, and though he wasn’t a linebacker full time last year, he’s got plenty of experience in this scheme. Riley has the kind of work ethic, speed and physicality that Keith Armstrong would love to employ on special teams, though, so I expect you’ll find him there initially.

Riley should be able to get on the field plenty, even early on, but he may need to wait for injury or impress over time to win an even larger role.

Long-term outlook: Very good

I don’t know what Riley’s ceiling is, but I can guess it’s going to be a little shy of Deion Jones’, given that the latter looks like he may become one of the best linebackers in the NFL sooner than later. What Riley does offer is the kind of speed and playmaking ability that made Jones dangerous, plus some really sweet hair.

The Falcons will hope that Riley can be their weakside linebacker of the present and future, plus a special teams asset, and that he’ll give the Falcons even more dangerous speed and physicality on defense. I think we’ll be celebrating the Riley pick sooner rather than later.