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Falcons post-draft roster preview: Inside Linebacker edition

For a defense with a lot of holes, this position may have the most depth.

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With all of the question marks on the Falcons defense, the one position that may have the most depth is at inside linebacker. With new defensive coordinator Dean Pees valuing speed and versatility out of his guys on the inside, the fit for this position group may not have been better.

Under the right coaching and usage, this group could be a good one in 2021 with the potential to be even more. Let’s take a look at the guys who will be patrolling the middle of this new defense.

Starting options

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Deion Jones

2020 stats: 16 games played, 106 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery

Contract status: Signed through 2023 season

After a forgettable 2019 season and a slow start in 2020, Debo finally began looking like his old self after the firing of former head coach Dan Quinn. The physical talent for Jones was never in question, as he’s easily one of the fastest linebackers in the league. He excels in coverage on his best days, which is important in a division that features running backs line Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey who he needs to glom on to.

Under the interim coaching staff, Jones showed that he can be used in a variety of ways, picking up 4.5 sacks as Atlanta decided to blitz far more than under Quinn. Dean Pees is likely to take advantage of this as he’s known for sending every player in as a rusher in his deceptive defensive looks. Jones could really come alive under this new coaching staff and reclaim a spot in the Pro Bowl if he fully taps into his potential as a pass rusher.

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Foye Oluokun

2020 stats: 15 games played, 117 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, 4 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery

Contract status: Signed through 2021 season

Foye’s first couple of years in the league were decent, especially for a former 6th round pick. In a reserve role playing behind De’Vondre Campbell, he would periodically pick up the slack when guys went out with injury. His continual grind paid off in a big way in 2020, as he took over as a full-time starter and was arguably one of the best defenders last season.

Oluokun would go on to lead the team in tackles and was an absolute monster in forcing turnovers. He’s a player with great athleticism and aggression and is going to be a great fit in what this new Atlanta defense wants to do. Like Deion, he was used more in the pass rush in 2020 and you can expect to see more of that in 2021. The only frustration is that he’s a free agent after this season and could be on his way to a big contract - possibly elsewhere - if he repeats his 2020 performance.

Key reserves

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Mykal Walker

2020 stats: 16 games played, 45tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 0 sacks, 0 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 0 fumble recoveries

Contract status: Signed through 2023 season

The fourth round pick out of Fresno State may have been one of the most surprising rookies last year. He was consistently ranked as a very good player by PFF in his limited snaps and he managed to make a splash periodically throughout the season. He has likely earned a bigger role going forward and will likely be the primary reserve under Pees. He is a player with good athleticism and if his 2020 season is any indicator, he could be a valuable player on this defense in 2021.

His upside is intriguing not only as a key reserve this year, but as a potential starter in 2022 and beyond if the Falcons let Oluokun walk.

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Brandon Copeland

2020 stats (New England): 6 games played, 12 tackles, 1 tackles for loss, 0 sacks, 0 interceptions, 0 forced fumbles, 0 fumble recoveries

Contract status: Signed through 2021 season

The veteran journeyman spent last year with the Patriots after stints with the Jets and the Lions. He was most productive in 2018 with the Jets as an outside linebacker where he picked up 5 sacks in 10 starts. He’s a quality depth player on a cheap one-year rental.


Outlook

In addition to the players above, rookie undrafted free agent Erroll Thompson is likely worth keeping an eye on as a more traditional thumping run stopper. The Falcons should be set here for 2021, but with Oluokun and Copeland only under contract for this year, the long-term future of the group gets more interesting.