The Falcons have been busy at the LB position as of late. Atlanta recently re-signed LB/S Kemal Ishmael—a key cog in the special teams unit and a valuable reserve. They’ve also held visits with three of the draft’s top LB prospects that could be in play at the end of the first round or early on Day 2: Alabama’s Rashaan Evans, Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch, and BYU’s Fred Warner. Clearly, the Falcons view LB as a need heading into the 2018 NFL Draft.
The LB depth chart is quite interesting at this point in the offseason. Prior to Ishmael’s signing, Atlanta was down to just three LBs on the entire roster: starters Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, and sophomore reserve Duke Riley. Ishmael gives them a fourth option there and makes the situation far less perilous, but the team is still likely in the market for a 5th option at the position. The question is: how highly should the team value that player, and what role will they be expected to have?
Atlanta’s interest in some of the top LBs in the draft is a bit puzzling. They have two very good starters, and just spent another Day 2 pick on Duke Riley in 2017. There isn’t a screaming need for a starter—and in fact, it seems much more likely that the team would be interested in a developmental or special teams player on Day 3 of this year’s draft. So why are the Falcons so interested in these early round LBs?
The answer probably has a great deal more to do with the future than it does with 2018. Both Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell will be entering the final year of their contracts in 2019, and the Falcons seem destined to have to choose between one or the other come 2020. At this point, I’d say Deion Jones has the clear lead in that race, but Campbell has been a very good player in his own right. After a disappointing rookie season from Duke Riley, the long-term future of the position group is somewhat up in the air.
Dan Quinn clearly prioritizes LB play, having spent a Day 2 pick on the position in each of the last two drafts. In my mind, the visits with Evans and Vander Esch are probably just the Falcons doing their due diligence on prospects that will be available at 26. It’s far more likely that Atlanta invests a Day 2 or Day 3 pick in the position, and there are several very intriguing candidates if that is their decision.
The aforementioned Fred Warner from BYU certainly fits the mold of what Quinn likes in his LBs, and the fan-favorite Shaquem Griffin from UCF would also be a natural fit in the defense. Both are options late on Day 2. If those players are gone before the Falcons pick, late round prospects like Vanderbilt’s Oren Burks or Arizona State’s Christian Sam could provide valuable depth and special teams ability for a low draft price.
With Ishmael’s re-signing and the current timeline, I have personally downgraded the need at LB for the Falcons. Will they still address the position in the draft? Probably. But instead of looking towards Day 2, I expect the team to shift their attention towards Day 3. A developmental option with upside and the potential to grow into a larger role when one of Jones or Campbell exits in free agency in 2020 seems like the perfect mix of need and value for Atlanta.
What are your thoughts on the LB position? Should adding another player in the 2018 NFL Draft be a high priority for the Falcons? Who are some players you’d like to see Atlanta target?