When dissecting Dan Quinn’s remarkable defensive rebuilding project, we have to start with addressing the massive need at linebacker. The Falcons had the worst starting linebacker group in the league when Quinn arrived. Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu were overwhelmed as undrafted starters, though both played hard for Mike Smith’s defenses. It was up to Quinn and the new regime to find and develop talent for a position that was neglected by the previous coaching staff. Although it took until Quinn’s second season, the Falcons turned a significant weakness into a noticeable strength.
The Falcons’ 2016 draft class will be remembered for a variety of reasons. Adding two starting linebackers in the same year should be considered as the biggest achievement from that draft. Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell have become one of the top duos in the league. As Jones ascends into stardom, Campbell is finding his niche as a multidimensional force. All eyes will now be on Duke Riley to start making plays following a injury-plagued forgettable rookie season.
In a matter of two seasons, Jones has established himself as the new age prototypical middle linebacker. Analysts are constantly referring to him as the type of player a coach wants in the heart of their defense.
There aren’t many three-down middle linebackers that can do it all quite like Jones. His instincts and range in coverage is extraordinary. There aren’t many instances where you see him out of position or a step behind. Jones knows how to sense danger and immediately close in on the intended target. That was on full display in the playoffs, as he played an integral role in limiting Todd Gurley to four receptions for ten yards.
Jones hasn’t received enough recognition for getting better as the season wore on. When the Falcons faced must-win scenarios, he was the best defensive player on the field. His game-sealing interception against New Orleans sparked life into what was becoming a disappointing season. In the playoff-clinching victory against Carolina, he was all over the field disrupting Cam Newton’s timing with Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffrey. Jones is on the cusp of greatness, if he’s not already there.
Despite his issues taking on blockers, he continues to overcome his size limitations and make plays against the run. What matters most is how Jones fares in coverage. From Pro Football Focus’ top 25 players under 25 list to Sports Illustrated labeling him as the ideal middle linebacker, his work speaks it for itself. It can be argued that Jones is only behind Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner when ranking the best linebackers in the league.
Jones wasn’t the only second-year linebacker to make a noteworthy leap. After struggling with injuries and awareness issues in his rookie season, Campbell showed considerable improvement in 2017. Pro Football Focus included him as an honorable mention on their first quarter All-Pro team. By tracking down Tarik Cohen and breaking up a likely 50-yard touchdown against Chicago to making several plays against Detroit, Campbell was playing at a high level to start the season.
His performance slightly dipped during the latter part of the season. There weren’t as many memorable moments in November and December. It was still a very encouraging season for Campbell, especially when considering his increased workload. Riley’s injury meant Campbell had to play weak side linebacker for long stretches of the season. Instead of rotating between strong side and weak side, Campbell had to play weak side on nearly every snap.
How Quinn moves forward with the versatile linebacker should be fascinating. As the coaching staff puts extra emphasis on Riley’s development, Campbell will still have plenty of responsibilities. Receiving more opportunities as a pass-rusher (or blitzer) is a realistic possibility based on last year’s success. Regardless of how they utilize him, the future is looking bright for the former fourth round pick.
Although this isn’t a make-or-break season for Riley, there needs to be some progression. It’s hard to find many positives from his rookie season. Other than showing good instincts against the run, Riley didn’t leave any positive impressions on the field. He was usually a step behind when isolated in man coverage. Open field tackling proved to be a major issue as well. After missing four tackles on opening day against Chicago, he missed another four tackles against Buffalo. It got to the point where Riley was a legitimate liability on the field at times. He suffered a serious knee injury against New England, which ended up sidelining him for a month.
Quinn was fully aware of Riley’s struggles, as he opted to use Vic Beasley and Kemal Ishmael more often. He didn’t play more than 11 snaps in the last six games of the season. It became clear that Riley was overwhelmed. Allowing him to learn from the sidelines can only benefit the former LSU linebacker in the long haul.
The Falcons drafted him to add more speed to their ultra-quick defense. They’ll need him to translate his impressive speed into making plays in the open field. From bringing down playmakers to covering tight ends, the coaching staff expects him to play 35 to 40 snaps per game. Riley must show that he can be an asset instead of a target for offensive coordinators.
The reliable reserve player has surprisingly returned to Atlanta for at least one more season. It seemed like Ishmael would move on for a potential better opportunity this off-season. After proving his value as a capable rotational player, he was expected to sign for a team that presented a starting opportunity. That didn’t come to fruition for him. That means Ishmael will reclaim his spot as the top backup linebacker and special teams ace.
Moving the former safety to linebacker was a smart decision on Quinn’s part. Ishmael is at his best playing near the line of scrimmage. That is where he can track down running backs and prevent them from creating any big plays. Ishmael is one of the most consistent open field tacklers on the team. It’s one of the biggest reasons why the coaching staff values him as a top backup. For all his limitations in coverage, Ishamel makes up for it with sound tackling and excellent instincts. He is a quality utility player that embraces doing the dirty work as an outside linebacker.
The Falcons have a plethora of rookie linebackers that will be competing for a roster spot. Foyesade Oluokun headlines the group coming from the Ivy League. The sixth round pick is already talking about making an impact on special teams. That is a good way for a rookie linebacker to solidify their place on the roster. Richard Jarvis is another linebacker coming from the Ivy League as well. The undrafted rookie will be competing with Anthony Wimbush, Emmanuel Ellerbee, and Emmanuel Smith. Wimbush may eventually move to defensive end, but he’ll likely start out as a strong side linebacker. His pass rushing success (11.5 sacks at Ball State in 2017) shouldn’t go unnoticed.