The linebacker battle doesn’t carry the straightforward stakes of the right guard battle, but it does feature two quality young players fighting for a larger share of the playing time pie at the position.
The Falcons figure to have one of their best young linebacker groups in recent memory regardless of whether Duke Riley or Kemal Ishmael wins the weak side job, but they are different players (Riley’s faster, Ishmael a bigger hitter), and so the winner will help define what the position looks like in 2017.
Let’s break it down.
Duke Riley: 0 career starts, 2017 third round draft pick
Kemal Ishmael: 19 career starts (most at safety), 2013 seventh round pick
Other contenders may emerge, but this looks like a two man battle. De’Vondre Campbell is going to play the strong side on downs where the Falcons have three linebackers on the field and will mix in as the second linebacker when they’re in nickel sets, so this is effectively a part-time starting job at the moment.
Riley has shown his strength in a ludicrous Instagram video, and his athleticism is not really in question. The most common scouting report for Riley was something along the lines of Deion Jones Lite, which would make Riley an excellent fit for a defense that prizes speed, a willingness to hit, and a bit of swagger. He’ll be starting sooner than later, it’s just a question of whether he can do so this year.
Falcons rookie Duke Riley is pulling a dang SUV all by himself!— SB Nation (@SBNation) July 19, 2017
( d_riley40 | Instagram) pic.twitter.com/6OhdGNlhZj
Ishmael is one of my favorite Falcons. Ever since he joined the team as a 21 year old safety, he has exceeded expectations, proving to be a ballhawking heavy hitter at safety and drawing a bunch of starts over the years. The lost 2014 season was his magnum opus, as he started 10 games and picked four passes along the way. He’s making the switch full-time to linebacker this year, where his relative weaknesses in coverage will be less of an issue.
This one probably will take place on about the same timeline as the right guard battle, with Ishmael and Riley each drawing starts over the first two weeks of preseason. I’ve come to view Riley as the favorite, however, so don’t be surprised if he starts Week 1, impresses with his play time, and becomes the nominal starter well before the end of preseason. Ishmael will have to shine to take it away.
Perhaps the writing should have been on the wall as soon as the Falcons made Riley their second draft selection in 2017, but I did think Ishmael should be considered the favorite until about June. Riley simply seems to be an early favorite of the coaching staff, and the comparisons to Debo point out what a good fit he could be in this defense.
So expect Riley to win. Ishmael will be, once more, a key reserve who may be thrust into a larger role if injuries happen, as well as arguably the team’s most valuable special teamer outside of Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher. Both will be useful players for the Falcons in 2017.