The Falcons head into the 2020 season with too many damn holes. Growth, free agency and the draft will paper over many of those, but it’s fair to worry a lot about positions like running back, guard, defensive end, and perhaps the entire secondary, if you’re so inclined.
I don’t see as many people worrying about linebacker, but it’s a position that has been on my mind a lot since the season ended. To understand why, let’s review where we left the position in 2019.
LB Deion Jones
2019 stats: 16 games, 110 tackles, 1 interception, 1 defensive touchdown, 1 fumble recovery, 5 pass deflections, 8 tackles for loss, 5 pressures, 58.5% completion allowed, 427 yards allowed, 4 touchdowns allowed, 10.6% missed tackle rate
Contract: 4 years remaining
Given the gaudy stats he puts up on a regular basis, this doesn’t look like Deion Jones’ most eye-popping season. He still had a terrific one, though, and easily one of the best seasons anyone on this defense managed in 2019.
So much of that comes down to how well Jones does just about everything. Aside from touchdowns allowed, he improved across the board from his six game stint in 2018 in terms of his coverage, and his tremendous speed and instincts allow him to make plays all over. If he didn’t grab as many picks this year and he didn’t pick up any sacks, he was still fundamentally very good at the core things this team needs him to be good at, especially coverage.
Do keep in mind that Jones returned, likely too early, from a major injury in 2018. I think it’s fair to expect that he’ll be truly 100% in 2020 and ready to play at an even higher level, and the Falcons certainly need that from him if they’re going to get out of their chronic middle-of-the-road or worse defensive rankings. He is inarguably one of their most critical defenders, especially given what else is available at linebacker.
LB De’Vondre Campbell
2019 Stats: 16 games, 129 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 2.0 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, 4 pressures, 5 pass deflections, 82% copmletion allowed, 462 yards allowed, 3 touchdowns allowed, 5.1% missed tackle rate
Contract: Unrestricted free agent
Campbell’s going to make quite a bit of money in free agency, whether it’s with the Falcons or someone else. Like many other Falcon defenders in 2019, he struggled a bit in the first half but found his footing in the second half, and his final season numbers are impressive enough that he won’t lack for suitors.
As we wrote recently, Campbell has proven to be a rock solid tackler and useful player against the run, as well as a capable pass rusher when he’s given the opportunity. Coverage continues to be the major hole in his game, as opposing quarterbacks completed 4 out of every 5 passes targeting him, even if he did generally limit the damage with the aforementioned quality tackling. As a young, three down linebacker, though, his value is evident. Tackles may be an overrated stat, but if you’re making them and not missing many, you’re likely preventing quite a bit of damage.
Will the Falcons pony up? He certainly gave them enough reason to do so this past year, if they’re so inclined, but I still wouldn’t be surprised if they drafted someone and had that player split time with Foye Oluokun in the early going.
LB Foye Oluokun
2019 stats: 16 games, 56 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 2 tackles for loss, 91.7% completion allowed, 202 yards, 6.7% missed tackle rate
Contract: 2 years remaining
Oluokun had maddeningly few chances to show off this past season, but at his best he looked like a capable replacement for Campbell. He’s a sure tackler, a smart player, and a fine pass rusher who makes the most of his limited opportunities.
Like Campbell, Oluokun’s coverage is an obvious area of improvement. He had some great plays in extended playing time in 2018, but has allowed a lot of completions in both of his seasons thus far and would be picked on in coverage constantly if he did start in 2020. The talent is certainly there for more, however, and the rest of Oluokun’s game suggests he’d be at least a solid start if that opportunity were given.
I do expect the Falcons to either draft someone or bring back Campbell, though, so ultimately Oluokun will likely continue to be a very valuable reserve.
LB Ahmad Thomas
Stats: 1 game
Contract: 1 year remaining
Thomas is likely ticketed for a special teams and deep reserve role if he makes it on the roster a year from now, as the team signed him late in the year and gave him one game of work before the season ended. He’s someone to keep an eye on, but that’s it for the moment.
Seeing as how Kemal Ishmael primarily played safety in 2019 and is a free agent, and promising linebacker and key special teamer Jermaine Grace was cut, this is it at linebacker.
Linebacker was one of the thinnest positions on the roster in 2019, full stop. The team got 16 games from both Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, but Campbell may now be gone and only Foye Oluokun is semi-proven and currently on the roster if he does leave.
If Campbell returns, the Jones and Campbell duo should be quite good again in 2020, hopefully without the early season sluggishness from both players. If Campbell leaves, the Falcons will almost certainly draft someone to at least take on a time-share role with Oluokun, who has plenty of upside but hasn’t gotten an extended chance to prove his worth yet.
With those question marks in place, about the only certainty is that Jones will be here and be good in 2020. That’s not a small comfort, but obviously until we have a better sense for how the team intends to go forward with their group, much is up in the air.