The Falcons have assembled a talented, pretty deep group of linebackers. Deion Jones is one of the best in football, period, and De’Vondre Campbell is a physical, underrated starter. With Kemal Ishmael serving as a useful, physical backup and special teamer and Foye Olukun promising to provide athleticism at least in his first year.
The question mark, then, is Duke Riley. The Falcons play enough nickel that third linebacker isn’t the most critical position on the roster, but Riley’s in line for plenty of playing time when the Falcons play their “base” 4-3 defense. Were the Falcons a worse football team, Riley would likely have plenty of time and little pressure to develop, as was the case with the likes of Paul Worrilow and (to a lesser extent) Joplo Bartu under Mike Smith.
This isn’t that team, though. This is a Super Bowl contender, and that’s why the question of Riley’s 2018 level of play is the biggest one at the position. If Riley’s able to leverage his speed, athleticism and real strength into a greatly improved second season, the Falcons will benefit greatly. If he’s not able to, the Falcons are likely to go hunting for his replacement in 2019, and they may even take a hard look at the promising Oluokun this season if Riley really falters. It’s worth remembering that he was a tackle-missing machine in 2017.
The last time we considered Riley’s 2018 fortunes, you guys seemed collectively pretty dour about his chances of making a big impact this season. I’m more optimistic, given that it’s pretty unusual for a linebacker to have the impact that say Deion Jones did in his first year, and that the team has rarely struck out when it comes to adding defensive talent to this roster. Another offseason and a little pressure ought to draw better out of the golden-maned LSU product, but if that doesn’t happen, a very promising defense promises to be a little less formidable.