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2018 let downs: Duke Riley struggled to right the ship during sophomore campaign

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Fact: Duke Riley’s mullet speaks six languages

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Falcons linebacker Duke Riley had big shoes to fill coming out of LSU. Just one year removed from the role of college backup, Riley was frequently (and perhaps unfairly) compared to fellow LSU alum Deion Jones. Because of Jones’ success as a rookie in Dan Quinn’s defense, we assumed Riley could make a similarly successful transition to the NFL. We were wrong.

Riley’s rookie campaign was ... lackluster. We’ve talked about this ad nauseum, and you’re likely familiar with the narrative: if Riley didn’t improve dramatically in 2018, he’d find himself on the bench. He didn’t. And he did.

Riley actually regressed in 2018 and his PFF grades tell the story. He earned a PFF grade of 54.5 in 2017. His PFF grade precipitously dropped to 44.2 in 2018, 88th among LBs, making him “below average” according to their metrics. He earned a 30.4 grade against the run (94th among LBs) and a 57.6 grade in coverage (52nd among LBs). His best games came in week 7 (83 grade) and week 9 (82.7 grade), while his worst games came in week 5 (27.5 grade) and week 10 (28.3 grade).

Rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun outsnapped Riley for the first time in the week 6 game against the Buccaneers, one week after Riley’s worst game of the season. He apparently (after the coaching staff publicly called him out) got the message and played his best two games in weeks 7 and 9 before rapidly regressing to his mean.

Riley’s issues aren’t the sort that are likely to improve with time. No one doubts his athleticism or speed; it’s his mental errors that drive us nuts. For whatever reason, things just won’t “click” for Riley.

Riley has two years remaining on his rookie deal and he’s not out of chances yet. He remains an athletic, talented football player. But Oluokun established himself as a quality contributor in 2018, and if Riley wants to carve out a meaningful role in 2019, the clock is undoubtedly ticking.