For many positions on the roster in 2018, the story was either good or bad. Running back was largely a mess with some bright notes from Ito Smith, wide receiver was terrific, and so on. The linebacker position grouping saw more of a mixed year.
Deion Jones lost much of his season to injury, immediately setting this group back considerably. De’Vondre Campbell had tremendous moments, as he often does, but hardly lit the world on fire. And Duke Riley mixed a couple of competent efforts with play that was bad enough to get him benched for a sixth-round rookie.
For all that, though, the Falcons appear to have unearthed a gem with that rookie, Foye Oluokun. And they got Jones back and healthy late in the year and saw pretty immediate improvement for the defense, albeit with some hiccups along the way, which gives them a good look for the future. By figuring out how good Riley is (read: sadly not very), getting Oluokun the playing time he needs to grow, and returning Campbell and Jones, the Falcons can go into 2019 with some confidence in how this group is going to shake out.
Of course, it’s linebacker and Dan Quinn loves adding talent to the group, so I doubt this is finished. Let’s take a look at what might lie ahead at linebacker.
I’ll be honest: I don’t see the Falcons investing significantly in linebacker in free agency. Their pattern under Quinn has been pretty clear, as the team has used a second, third, fourth and sixth round pick at linebacker over the last three seasons alone to try to add youth, athleticism and talent. Campbell isn’t an elite starter and Riley hasn’t panned out, but they’ve hit on three of those four selections and will likely prioritize the draft again.
That’s not to say there are not worthwhile veteran options out there. Quinn will likely be tempted to take a look at K.J. Wright, who overlapped with DQ in Seattle, and Shaquil Barrett and Preston Smith are young, talented, and starting-caliber players who could contribute if the Falcons aren’t completely whelmed with the prospect of starting Oluokun in base looks.
This is where you could very well see the Falcons sinking in at least one selection, potentially as early as Day 1 despite the fan revolt that would follow. Quinn has made it clear again and again that having the right kind of athleticism and skill at linebacker is key to making his defense work, and if he’s not completely satisfied with Campbell and Oluokun with Jones, he’ll likely add to the position.
Who would he add? Florida’s Vosean Joseph would seem like an ideal candidate, but he appears to be returning to school for his senior year. That could leave Georgia’s De’Andre Walker (second day pick, in all likelihood), Michigan’s Chase Vinovitch (ditto), or a developmental prospect like TCU’s Ben Banogu, who would have the luxury of time to develop behind Debo, Campbell and Oluokun. It’s a virtual lock that the Falcons will take a linebacker, though.
The preferred outcome
If the Falcons go with a pass rushing defensive lineman in round one and add at guard in round two, as I’ve suggested, linebacker seems like a real possibility in the third or fourth round. There’s enough talent here as it is to make that a smart investment, especially with Campbell hitting free agency heading into 2020, and I think Quinn’s love of linebackers will ensure that happens.
I expect the Falcons to hold on to Riley as young, cheap depth and as a key special teamer, while strongly considering bringing back Ishmael for his value as a situational run stopper and special teamer. That would leave the team with a quality set of linebackers obviously headlined by Jones, and I don’t think they need to do more significant investment at the moment.
The likely outcome
Don’t rule out a first round selection at linebacker, but I think the likely outcome will line up pretty neatly with the preferred outcome here. The team will add a mid-round choice at linebacker to round things out and will likely look hard at bringing back Kemal Ishmael as a versatile, veteran presence with special teams upside, leaving them with Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Foye Oluokun, a rookie, Duke Riley and Ishmael.