The Falcons have had a busy offseason at the LB position. Long-time starter De’Vondre Campbell left the team in free agency, receiving a lucrative contract with the Arizona Cardinals. Campbell played over 88.7% of Atlanta’s defensive snaps—behind just Ricardo Allen, Deion Jones, and Isaiah Oliver. While Campbell struggled in coverage in 2019, he was an excellent tackler and a strong blitzer. The Falcons didn’t do much to replace his production, drafting rookie Mykal Walker in the fourth round and signing a few low-level veteran free agents, which signals they probably feel pretty comfortable with Foyesade Oluokun starting opposite Jones.
We know the state of the Falcons’ LB corps, but what about the rest of the NFC South? Let’s take a closer look at how each of the other teams in the division fared in addressing the middle of their defense during the offseason, and try to determine who has the best group going into the 2020 season.
The Falcons have their star at the top in Deion Jones, who is among the NFL’s best young LBs, but a lot of question marks behind him. Foye Oluokun has starting experience and has performed at an average level, but he needs to improve in coverage. Rookie Mykal Walker is versatile and can play all three LB spots, but we’ll have to see how quickly he can adjust to the NFL. Veteran free agent addition Deone Bucannon is a good fit in the Falcons’ scheme who can cover and hit. XFL standout Edmond Robinson could have a good chance to stick at SAM due to his size, while veteran LaRoy Reynolds has the edge on special teams. Ahmad Thomas and Jordan Williams have to be considered long-shots to make the roster.
The Panthers lost star LB Luke Kuechly to retirement this offseason, and didn’t have much of a chance to replace him. Shaq Thompson is a good starter who can do a little bit of everything. Free agent addition Tahir Whitehead has a lot of experience and is a strong tackler, but he’s been abysmal in coverage over the past two seasons. Behind those two, the cupboard is relatively bare. Jermaine Carter served as a solid spot-starter in 2019, starting 5 games. Andre Smith is a depth piece who appeared in all 16 games but posted just 5 total tackles. Jordan Kunaszyk also served as depth, appearing in 9 games but posting just 7 tackles. The Panthers also brought in a whopping 5 UDFA LBs to compete in training camp.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints have a very good starter in Demario Davis, who had a strong season in 2019. Kiko Alonso is also a solid-to-good starter, though he had a lackluster season in 2019. Alex Anzalone has been good when healthy, but he’s missed nearly two full seasons in 3 years in the NFL. Rookie Zack Baun will likely split time between EDGE and LB, but his talent is intriguing. UDFA Joe Bachie probably should have been drafted and could be solid depth this season. Craig Robertson has been a solid depth piece for New Orleans over the past 4 seasons, although he hasn’t been a starter since 2017. The remaining three players are all camp competition and will have a tough time cracking the roster.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers invested heavily in their LB corps in recent years, and they have a strong group at the top. Lavonte David remains one of the NFL’s best LBs and is entering his age 30 season. Second-year player Devin White was a top-5 draft pick who came on a little slow, but finished very strong in 2019. Kevin Minter is a solid starter who can play all over the formation. Jack Cichy is a solid depth piece for Tampa Bay. Kendell Beckwith had a strong rookie campaign in 2017 before a car accident prior to the 2018 season put his career in jeopardy—he’s still with the team however and could possibly make a comeback. Noah Dawkins is camp competition who could probably make the team if Beckwith’s health is an issue.
Who has the best LB corps?
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- New Orleans Saints
- Atlanta Falcons
- Carolina Panthers
The NFC South has some pretty good LB groups, but the Buccaneers take the crown as the best heading into the 2020 season. Lavonte David has been one of the best LBs in the NFL for a long time and could form one of the league’s best tandems with Devin White if the second-year player continues to play a high level. The Saints come in at second: New Orleans has a good group with the ascending Demario Davis, the solid Kiko Alonso, and some intriguing potential in Alex Anzalone (if he can stay healthy) and rookie Zack Baun.
Coming in third are the Falcons, with a star in Deion Jones and a couple of solid starters in Foyesade Oluokun and Deone Bucannon. Rookie Mykal Walker is the wild card here, and his play will determine if this group is merely average or something more. The Panthers are in last place, although they do have a very good player in Shaq Thompson and a solid veteran starter in Tahir Whitehead. Carolina’s depth is severely lacking, and unless one of their 5 UDFAs surprises in camp, I’m not sure that they have much in the way of developmental potential either.
What are your thoughts on the LB corps of the NFC South? Do you agree with this ranking? If not, how would you rank them?