Another day, another camp battle! This one concerns two young linebackers, one the fanbase loves and one that the jury is out on.
Duke Riley, 24 entering his 3rd season with Atlanta
Riley has become a bit of a punching bag for Falcons fans. The 3rd round pick out of LSU in 2017 was expected to have an immediate impact for the team by many fans, despite the fact that he was clearly a developmental prospect when he was drafted. Certainly, the immediate impact of Deion Jones didn’t help matters. That said, it’s easy to forget why we were all excited about Riley when he was drafted. His athleticism is top-notch, with a combine 40 yard dash of 4.58 and a vertical jump of nearly 35 inches. On tape, he looked like a player who could explode to the ball in a fashion very reminiscent of Debo.
Yet, that potential has not been realized with the Falcons. For whatever reason, Duke has looked timid and/or lost on the field at times, missing many tackles along the way. He has flashed moments of that potential, which has only made the letdown even more significant.
That said, he is still just 24 years old and on a relatively cheap rookie contract. He still has the potential, even if he’s shown little to no progress the past two years. All it takes is for the light bulb to come on and Duke can be a quality starter in this league. The physical ability is there and there’s little doubt the team wants him to live up to it.
Foye Oluokon, 23 entering his 2nd season with Atlanta
The 2018 sixth round pick out of Yale was yet another late-round “find” by the Falcons. Oluokon has said he wasn’t even sure he’d be drafted and now he’s in the conversation to be a permanent starter in 2019. While Foye is somewhat undersized for the position, he more than makes up for it in athleticism. At his pro day, he posted an impressive 4.56 40 time and an impressive 37 inch vertical. His 20-yard shuttle time of 4.12 seconds would have been second for all linebackers at the NFL combine.
In his first year with the Falcons, Foye ended up third in tackle rate (per Next Gen Stats) behind only Leighton Vander Esch (2018 rookie Pro Bowler) and Darius Leonard (2018 defensive rookie of the year, 2018 first team All-Pro, NFL tackles leader). That is some impressive company to keep, especially for a sixth rounder out of a school known far more for its academics than its athletes.
If there’s one thing Dan Quinn truly believes in, it’s putting the best guys on the field. In 2018, Foye saw increased snaps as the season progressed, a clear sign the coaching staff liked what they saw out of the rookie.
And the winner is...
While I’m still holding out hope for Duke, this battle likely goes to Foye for now. I do believe the Falcons will give Riley every opportunity in camp to steal this spot back, but Oluokon was very impressive in his first year. More importantly, while Foye showed continual improvement during the 2018 season, Riley seemed to stagnate or even regress. That directional difference in their play is why I expect to see Oluokon as a starter when the first regular season game comes around.