Few players come into the 2018 season with as much pressure on them to perform as Duke Riley, and it’s only his second season. That’s what happens when your team is loaded with talent and in win-now mode and a player spent most of his first season either injured or looking like a liability.
And there’s no other way to characterize what Riley did in 2018, though you can certainly note that he had his moments on the field. It’s just that they came between long stretches of poor performance, as Riley missed eight of 31 tackle attempts, the worst rate for any linebacker in the NFL, and Jeff Ullbrich was pretty candid about the need for that to improve.
But if you thought the Falcons would toss Riley aside after one year, you would be mistaken. Things could change between now and September, but the team has made no move to replace him unless you think rookie Foye Oluokun is going to shock everybody. And given that Riley won’t be drawing huge snaps with Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell dominating snaps in nickel sets, and given that the team drafted the speedy linebacker in the third round in the hopes that he’d add yet more quickness and athleticism to a team loaded up with it, you can absolutely understand why he’s getting another chance. One season isn’t enough time to make or break a player’s career, anyways.
The Falcons, had they signed Mychal Kendricks, would have been tasked with juggling snaps for him and De’Vondre Campbell, with Riley likely heading to the bench full-time. The fact that the team has no reported interest in Kendricks suggests that Atlanta will (likely rightly) give their 2017 third round pick another bite at the apple in 2018. Riley, I think, has the talent to be a genuinely useful linebacker for anywhere from 20-40 snaps per game, and his speed and strength indicate that he could become more than that.
So there is pressure on Riley, because if he doesn’t perform this season, the team will likely take a hard look at linebacker in the draft a year from now. But there’s also ample opportunity, because I doubt that he’s got real competition for snaps unless Foye Oluokun burns up training camp and preseason for Atlanta. I like his chances of building on that disappointing rookie season and becoming what amounts to a solid part-time starter, with the potential to be a fearsome linebacker if can figure things out. The ability is certainly there.
How do you think Riley will perform in 2018?