Going into the 2020 season, the Falcons made it clear they wouldn’t make a special effort to retain De’Vondre Campbell. His departure created a void in the linebacker unit that many presumed Foye Oluokun would fill. Many fans and analysts thought that linebacker could be a sleeper pick for the first round of the draft, but the team opted to take Mykal Walker in the fourth round instead.
We know we can slot in Deion Jones in nickel sets, but who will stand next to him once the season rolls around? Let’s take a look at the current options on the roster.
Right now, Oluokun has to be considered the most likely player to start in nickel sets. Of all the linebackers on the roster, he has the most on-field experience under Dan Quinn and he’s been in the spot before. In a season where training camp and in-person training will be impacted, that experience will be vital.
That said, Foye didn’t beat out Campbell for that spot last year. Whether that was purely due to performance or the coaching staff favoring De’Vondre, Oluokun got only 1⁄3 the number of snaps that Campbell did. His PFF score for 2019 showed he was a better overall option than Campbell, though. For a 6th round pick, Foye has been a great value, but I don’t think he’s good enough to simply hand him this spot and it looks like the coaching staff doesn’t think so either.
The fourth round rookie coming out of Fresno State will have the same hurdle all rookies have this year. With an impacted training camp, his ability to get up to speed will be slowed considerably. The Falcons may be hoping he’s a long-term option to start next to Debo, but you can probably rule him out as a starter on day one. That said, don’t be surprised if the coaching staff gives him repeated opportunities throughout the year. If he takes advantage of him, he could at least steal a few snaps away from whoever the day one starter is. Even still, Walker should be considered a long-shot for now.
LaRoy Reynolds or Edmond Robinson
When in doubt, turn to a veteran. The team has brought back special-teamer LaRoy Reynolds and they’ve brought in 5th year player Edmond Robinson as well. Reynolds has played LB in spots, but is generally a guy you lean on almost exclusively for special teams play. Robinson hasn’t started a game since 2016. Neither option looks particularly enticing, though Reynolds may get the nod here.
Yes, I know Neal is a safety. Yes, I realize his health is a wild card at this point. However, Dan Quinn has already intimated that Damontae Kazee will play safety in 2020. With Ricardo Allen cemented as one of the two starters at safety, a returning Neal was presumed to take back over the spot next to him. Yet, that would leave Kazee off the field and despite some of his struggles last year, he has mostly been a solid player at safety.
Nickel sets may be the best opportunity to have all 3 guys on the field at once, with Neal sliding down next to Deion while Kazee and Rico play safety. This would allow the Falcons to keep one of their better coverage players on the field while also putting Neal in a spot he’s not completely unfamiliar with. Keanu has already shown he’s capable of covering tight ends, so having him do so in nickel and dime sets is not a stretch at all.
Who do you think will emerge as the nickel starter at linebacker next to Deion Jones?