The Falcons defense is in flux heading into 2020, as it is pretty much every season. Desmond Trufant, De’Vondre Campbell, Vic Beasley, Jack Crawford, and others are gone, replaced by a mix of highly regarded rookies, splashy veteran signings, bargain bin additions, and potentially undrafted free agents. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just means that as usual, we have no idea what to expect from this Falcons defense, except that it likely won’t be one of the league’s elite units.
The linebacker group, though, looks like it’ll be at least pretty solid. Pro Football Focus would take that assessment one step further, grading Atlanta’s group as the 7th-best in the league heading into 2020.
Here’s their rationale:
Over the past three years, Deion Jones is tied for the lead among linebackers with a 92.2 coverage grade, and we’ve seen how important he is to Atlanta’s defense when he’s missed time due to injury. Jones was incredible in 2017, finishing with a 91.7 coverage grade while consistently making plays on the ball in crunch time. In his four-year career, Jones has 24 pass breakups and 10 interceptions, though he has graded in the 60.0s in the run game in his three full seasons. Jones’ ability to patrol the middle of the field is one of the catalysts for the Falcons’ defense.
Next to him is 2018 sixth-rounder Foyesade Oluokun, who has graded in the 60.0s in each of his two NFL seasons. Oluokun is another undersized, athletic linebacker who ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash and wipes out underneath routes in zone coverage. Deone Bucannon is also in the mix, though he has graded above 70.0 just once in his six-year career — and that was back in 2015. The former safety is on to his fourth team, and while he should add coverage versatility, it hasn’t shown up in the form of production since 2016.
The primary reasons to believe in this corps is definitely Deion Jones, as outlined above. Jones is one of the league’s most impactful, athletic linebackers, a player perfectly capable of jumping in front of a perfectly thrown pass and taking it to the house. As long as he’s here and healthy, the Falcons will never have a bad group of linebackers, and he’s still just 25 years old.
Oluokun is the piece that pushes this ranking up for PFF. I’m a little surprised by that given that Campbell feels like (and inarguably is) a loss, given his durability and well-rounded game, but Oluokun’s limited snaps over the past two years have given Pro Football Focus confidence in his coverage abilities. He’s a virtual slam dunk starter in Week 1 given how he’s performed to this point, I think, and i just hope he can be as good as PFF thinks he can be.
Deone Bucannon and Mykal Walker will likely round out the group this year, with a UDFA potentially sneaking in behind them. Bucannon is an intriguing, talented player who hasn’t had a lot of recent success, while Walker is the kind of athlete the Falcons demand in their young players, and potentially a future starter in his ow right. I think 7th best in the entire NFL might be a stretch here, if I’m being honest, but there’s certainly talent here.
The Falcons will need them to be that good if they have any prayer of being a top defense in 2020. They have a mostly young secondary with Keanu Neal returning from injury and a defensive line full of players who either have to repeat career years, finally have a breakout season, or are coming off of down seasons, minus the great Grady Jarrett. Getting excellent linebacker player—say, the 7th best in the NFL—would go a very long way.