Deion Jones is not gone and he’s certainly not forgotten. A little past the midway point of this 2018 season, he’ll hopefully return to the field for the Atlanta Falcons, toughing through a handful of weeks as he gets up to speed. If all goes well, he’ll be in great shape for the playoffs, assuming Atlanta can get there.
Of course, getting there depends on whether the Falcons are good enough to win a lot of games. That’s heavily dependent whether the Falcons can successfully replace Deion Jones in the first place.
Before the season ever began, I wrote that the Falcons could only be undone this year by injury or by Steve Sarkisian, and through one game they’ve been mightily impacted by both. The question now is who will replace Deion Jones and how successful they’ll be.
Let’s take a look at the plan, shall we?
Option #1: Duke Riley steps in
This is the option we’ll see right away on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. We know this because unless Dan Quinn is throwing yet another curveball, the team’s website is reporting it.
Time for guys to step up.— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) September 11, 2018
Following the injuries to Neal and Jones, here's how we will begin to fill their roles: https://t.co/YzjHatqu9v
All those reps for Riley at middle linebacker this preseason suddenly look prescient, and it’s a comfort to know he’s had some recent experience working in that role. For all the justified heat Riley received early in preseason over his lackluster coverage and tackling ability, he has looked solid since, including in a limited number of snaps against the Eagles. There’s plenty of strength and speed there to work with, even if the results in 2017 were awful and we’re all legitimately wary of his ability in the here and now.
As the article above notes, Riley is considered to be an excellent communicator by the coaching staff, and we’ve absolutely seen flashes of his ability to stick with tight ends and running backs stride-for-stride in coverage. What we have yet to see from him is the playmaking ability that Jones brings to the position, whether it be as an occasional pass rusher or as a much more frequent threat to intercept wayward passes. If Riley can tackle effectively and cover pretty well, he’ll at least give this Falcons team a fighting chance.
Obviously, Riley is going to be a massive downgrade from Jones, as just about anybody the Falcons could trot out there would be. The question is whether he’ll slot in as a starting-caliber middle linebacker who can make this team competitive in the weeks ahead, or whether he’ll flame out and the Falcons will have to make another move. We’ll hope for the former, but if the latter happens, who is up next?
Option #2: Foye Oluokun
The next man up might be rookie Foye Oluokun. The Falcons have talked up Oluokun’s veteran presence and ability ever since they drafted him, and while he’s had some miscues along the way, he’s certainly looked as fast and physical as Dan Quinn likes his linebackers to be.
The biggest obstacles for Oluokun would be experience and transitioning. The Falcons have primarily played him as a weakside linebacker to this point, and that remains his likeliest role going forward unless the Falcons surprise us all and bypass Riley. Oluokun should do quite well there, albeit with some expected rookie hiccups, and if he plays as well as I expect it’ll be difficult for Atlanta to move him and risk a dip in performance. I think this is an emergency option only, albeit one the Falcons might have to explore if Riley’s not up to snuff.
Corey Nelson is going to be linked to the spot if Riley falters, but he probably shouldn’t be a legitimate option. Nelson rarely played more than a part-time role for the Broncos, got cut outright by the Eagles, and has shown real special teams aptitude and tackling acumen but little else thus far in his NFL career. Maybe he blossoms in Atlanta, but not as a Jones replacement, methinks.
Option #3: Street free agent
I may be wrong here. Maybe the Falcons would try out Nelson or De’Vondre Campbell or even Kemal Ishmael in the middle of the defense, but it just doesn’t seem particularly likely. The Falcons will probably go with a Campbell, Riley, Oluokun trio at first, and if there are problems, free agency is the next stop.
So who is out there? Names you know who are past their prime or perhaps never reached it, including Navorro Bowman, Kevin Minter, Sean Weatherspoon, and Scooby Wright. The Falcons could, if they got desperate, sign one of those players and plug them right into the starting lineup, but at the point where they’d consider doing so things might already be so dire that it would almost be beside the point. Unless there’s another injury and/or Riley and Oluokun are just plain bad, I wouldn’t expect the Falcons to go dumpster diving in free agency.
All the Falcons have said is this point, chiefly through the article above, is that Riley is likely to be the starter. Whether Atlanta chooses him, Oluokun, or a more surprising option in the middle, they’ll be trying to commit to a player solid enough to carry them through eight-plus weeks while Deion Jones heals up. They may well find that player, but the terrifying thing at this moment is that we really don’t know if they will.