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Falcons roster review: A post-draft look at linebacker

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A position of strength, no matter how it shakes out.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Falcons have consistently made linebacker a priority under Dan Quinn, and as a result, they have a lot of talent at the position. Their decision to not invest draft capital or significant free agent dollars into the group seems unlikely to hurt them, as they have three starting-caliber players and a ton of intriguing depth.

When you’re talking yourself into this Falcons defense, as we’re all going to do at some point during this offseason, looking at the individual position grouping helps to make it clear that actual upside exists. For pound-for-pound athleticism, it’s tough to beat linebacker, as we’ll see when we take a deeper look today.

Let’s cover the starters, reserves, and outlook for the group.

Starters

Deion Jones is a star. Few linebackers in the NFL, if any, enjoy his sideline-to-sideline speed, coverage ability, and knack for the big turnover. He led the team in interceptions in 2016 and 2017 and was second on the team in 2018 despite missing a bunch of games, and the difference when the team doesn’t have him on the field is pretty stark. He heads into the year as a mortal lock for more than 100 tackles (which is impactful given how much ground he covers and how effectively he limits yards after the catch, and he should be good for at least one game-changing interception of a Drew Brees dead duck pass. Jones’ ability to limit mistakes and make plays lifts the entire defense.

He’ll be joined in a full-time starter role by De’Vondre Campbell. He knocked for a couple of off games in 2018 but enjoyed perhaps his best NFL season with Deion Jones missing from the lineup for a long stretch of the year and Duke Riley struggling next to him at times. Campbell’s a physical, well-rounded linebacker who shines when given an opportunity to get after the passer, as he has 3.5 sacks and 9 quarterback hits over the past two seasons. With Jones back and healthy, the Falcons will likely experiment with having Campbell up at the line of scrimmage a bit more often given that ability, but regardless of how they use him, he’s a stone solid starter who could break out further in his age-26 season.

The Falcons run enough nickel looks that the third linebacker is not, technically speaking, a full-time starter. The team will still find plenty of opportunities for Foye Oluokun, who stepped in for Riley partway through the 2018 season and showed an intriguing blend of athleticism and coverage skills. He’ll be just 24 and a second-year former sixth round pick in 2019, so it’s reasonable to suggest he can be considerably better than he was in his rookie season, when he already looked like at least a capable starter.

This is a good group, in other words, with the potential to be one of the league’s best if Jones is healthy and Campbell and Oluokun continue growing.

Reserves

What the team lacks in stellar depth it makes up for with a blend of youth, quality experience, special teams value, and upside.

Start with Duke Riley. The much-maligned linebacker has missed far too many tackles over the last two seasons and isn’t going to be able to fight his way into a starting role after that, but he’s been rock solid on special teams since the Falcons started actually giving him those snaps, and he’ll only be 25 years old when the season begins. It’s way too early to give up on him being a quality contributor given his age and the ability that drew the eyes of infamous LSU linebacker lover Dan Quinn, so I expect he’ll enter the year as the team’s top reserve.

He’s followed by a couple of savvy veterans potentially competing for a single spot. Bruce Carter proved himself to be a strong contributor against the run in 2018 and a useful special teamer in his own right, and that could be enough to earn him a spot. Of course, if it comes down to him or longtime Falcon Kemal Ishmael, the latter may win given that he’s been one of the biggest ST contributors this team has had over the last several seasons, and remains a useful player when you need a stop in short yardage or goal line situations.

Beyond that, you have a handful of younger players who should be fighting over (at most) a single spot. Rookie Tre’ Crawford is impressing early and has the athletic profile the team is looking for, Jermaine Grace has been around this team before and has flashed special teams value in his limited chances, and Del’Shawn Phillips and Yurik Bethune are rookie UDFAs who could push for spots like Richard Jarvis did a year ago. I think Crawford or Grace will ultimately make the roster, and the other should make the practice squad.

Outlook

Health is a question mark at every position and Jones just lost a significant chunk of 2018, but this group is a promising one. Debo’s a legitimate star, Campbell is an underrated starter who gives the team a ton of good snaps, and Oluokun looks like he’ll be a quality starter for years to come. Add in the depth options and linebacker ought to be a strength for Atlanta again.

It’s also a critically important group because the secondary and defensive line are both in a bit of flux, with a contract year for Vic Beasley, new additions like Tyeler Davison and Ra’Shede Hageman at DT, and Isaiah Oliver and Damontae Kazee starting for the first time at two corner spots. Jones’ range and Campbell’s physicality gives the Falcons stability and talent where they need it most, and if the defense is resurgent this year, you can bet that those two will be a major factor.