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Kemal Ishmael’s versatility lets the Falcons maintain draft flexibility

Ish’s return helps clarify the defense’s needs.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Until the Falcons re-signed Kemal Ishmael earlier this week, they had a linebacker depth chart that consisted of Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Duke Riley, and literally nobody else. The team’s reserves from a year ago—Ishmael, reliable special teamer LaRoy Reynolds, Sean Weatherspoon, and Jordan Tripp—had not been re-signed, leaving real questions about how the Falcons were going to replace that depth and those snaps.

Ishmael’s signing isn’t necessarily a flashy one, but it’s a strong one that allows the Falcons to go into the draft with some real flexibility. That’s because Ishmael can play all three linebacker spots in a pinch, has experience at safety if he’s needed there as an emergency option, and is of course a quality special teamer. That’s one (likely cheap) signing that addresses a number of small holes on the roster, and Ishmael has shown time and time again that he’s a reliable reserve, albeit one who isn’t great in coverage.

Why is that important? Because the Falcons now don’t have to pursue a rookie linebacker at a particular position to shore things up, because Ishmael is capable of playing any of them if called upon. They also don’t need to worry about exposing a late round rookie safety to extended playing time if injury strikes because Ish is here (though they’d probably prefer he didn’t play much, either). That means the team can and likely will avoid selecting players who fill specific short-term needs at linebacker and arguably safety, and focus on selecting higher-upside players who might benefit from a slow introduction to the NFL.

In the weeks and months ahead, I fully expect the Falcons to consider adding another veteran linebacker to the mix (Reynolds?) to take even more pressure off a likely draft pick at the position. The team has worked out a ton of linebackers, after all, and where there’s that much smoke there seems likely to be some fire. Regardless of who the Falcons select, Ishmael will be there to be reliable depth for at least one more new year while the rookie(s) develop(s).