Similar to most positions on the roster, the Falcons had high expectations for their linebackers. Deion Jones established himself as a top-tier linebacker in 2017. Other than Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, there isn’t a better middle linebacker in the league. De’Vondre Campbell made major strides following an inconsistent rookie season. While Duke Riley endured a frustrating rookie season, the coaching staff remained confident in his abilities to become a solid rotational player.
Drafting Foye Oluokun and re-signing Kemal Ishamel rounded out an exciting linebacker group. With the defensive line losing Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe, it was expected that the linebackers were going to be challenged more in the running game. Losing a violent versatile lineman like Clayborn and a true run-stuffer in Poe were significant losses. The lack of support up front proved to be too overwhelming for the linebacker group. They still managed to show some flashes in what turned into an infuriating cruel season.
The game-changing linebacker suffered a severe foot injury in a second consecutive grueling defeat to the Eagles. For him to miss essentially three months of the season left the defense overmatched across the board. Jones’ instincts, range, and speed gives Dan Quinn’s defense a wide variety of options. They can be more aggressive with Jones’ ability to cover acres of space. How he can match up against running backs and prevent them from picking up easy chunk yards is integral to the Falcons’ scheme. Playing a massive role in limiting Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, and Todd Gurley in three straight games proved Jones’ value as one of the most valuable defensive players in the league.
It’s difficult to assess a player’s performance after only playing six games. You must take into account that Jones likely took two games to get back into game shape, especially when he rarely leaves the field and handles the most defensive responsibility on the field. Once the playmaking linebacker got back into the groove, he made his mark during Atlanta’s three-game winning streak. He showed noticeable improvement against the run in taking on blockers. That was arguably the biggest knock on his overall game. If Jones can continue to hold his own at the point of attack, there is no reason why he can’t become the best middle linebacker in the league.
After shining in his second season, it was a strange season for the versatile linebacker. Campbell was pressed into a bigger role with Jones’ absence. He took the reins in communicating with the coaching staff during various stages of the season. Some of the defense’s better performances occurred when Campbell was leading the defense. Their overall improvement didn’t feature many memorable plays from him. He didn’t produce the same amount of difference-making plays he did in 2017. Whether it consists of breaking up a pass on third down or making a big stop against the run, Campbell rarely made notable plays.
When Jones returned from injury, Campbell looked more comfortable alongside his running mate. His presence allowed Campbell to blitz more often. With his explosiveness and power, the former fifth round pick is capable of causing havoc as an extra pass rusher. The coaching staff utilized him as much as possible in a blitzing capacity during the last three games. Giving him less man coverage assignments and more opportunities to get after the quarterback would be an effective strategy in getting the most out of Campbell. The coaching staff knows they have a solid linebacker on their hands. How they use him going forward will determine how much of an impact Campbell can truly make in Quinn’s Cover 3 based defense.
What was considered to be an intriguing flier pick may end up becoming one of the best late-round selections in the Quinn-Dmitiroff era. Oluokun was quickly pressed into action after Jones was sidelined for nearly three months. Instead of being moved down the depth chart after the star middle linebacker returned, the coaching staff continued to give him significant snaps. That is a testament to how well the former sixth round pick performed on a consistent basis.
Oluokun emerged as a real physical presence against the run. From not being fazed when taking on blockers to rarely missing tackles in the open field, the Falcons have a real talent on their hands. It wasn’t surprising to see Quinn bring in another speedy prospect be inserted into an ultra-quick linebacker unit. Oluokun also brought much-needed ferocity to an undersized front seven, which solidified his place in the rotation. How the coaching staff uses him moving forward remains to be seen. Whether it’s using him as a strong side linebacker and (or) rotating with Campbell on the weak side, Oluokun could very well develop into a key contributor in 2019.
As Oluokun earned the coaching staff’s trust, Riley did everything possible to earn a place on the bench. The once highly touted linebacker has proven to be a major liability on the field. His tackling issues from his rookie season transferred over into 2018. Not being able to take on blockers left him overmatched against the run. Failing to diagnose plays in coverage allowed skill position players to pick up easy yards underneath. Many draft analysts praised Riley for his instincts coming out of LSU. That hasn’t translated to the pros, as he is constantly a step behind on his assignments.
It’s difficult to be optimistic about Riley’s outlook. After two seasons of not making any positive impact, the former third round pick is under enormous pressure. The front office will likely bring in more competition to challenge for backup roles and to handle special teams’ duties. If Riley doesn’t make a positive impression in the summer, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the coaching staff give up on him. They can’t afford to keep players that continue to make the same blunders and fail to show improvement. The clock is ticking for Riley following a dismal season.
Ishmael wasn’t used as much as he was in previous seasons. Considering all of the injuries and personnel issues surrounding the defense, most would have expected Ishmael to receive more opportunities. The versatile linebacker is one of the most reliable open-field tacklers on the team. Despite being somewhat undersized as a former strong safety, his willingness to throw his body on the line against the run has always been admirable. There is no fear in his game. Ishmael embraces contact at all times, which can’t be said for all linebackers.
It’ll be interesting to see how much interest Ishmael attracts in free agency. Most thought he would depart after playing well in 2016. His decision to re-sign with the Falcons was surprising at the time. Not many players with his experience stick with a team that has no plans to use him in a major role. Will Ishmael try his chances elsewhere or reclaim his place as a reliable backup? Based on his limited snaps when the defense was at its worst, the multi-dimensional defender will likely go to a team that can provide more opportunities.