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Falcons training camp preview: Linebacker

With Falcons training camp just around the corner, we take a closer look at Atlanta’s linebackers. A big strength on defense, the team has a trio of quality starters and some very capable depth behind them.

NFL: Altanta Falcons OTA Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

With the start of the Falcons’ 2021 training camp just around the corner, it’s time to take a closer look at each of the position groups on the roster. We’ll go through each one, noting the potential starters and the competition for depth roles. Now it’s time to discuss the Falcons defense, where we move to the linebackers. Atlanta has a strong trio at the top of the depth chart with Deion Jones, Foyesade Oluokun, and Mykal Walker. They also added a versatile veteran in Brandon Copeland, and signed two UDFAs: Dorian Etheridge and Erroll Thompson.

OFFENSE: QB | RB | TE | WR | OT | C/G

DEFENSE: EDGE | DT | LB

THE THREE STARTERS: Deion Jones, Foyesade Oluokun, Mykal Walker

Deion Jones

6’1, 227 | RAS: 6.24 | 2020 Stats: 106 total tackles, 73 solo, 9.4% missed tackle rate, 9.0 TFL | 4.5 sacks, 1 FF, 16 total pressures | 6 PD, 2 INT, 74.1% completion rate allowed, 114.0 passer rating allowed | 68.7 overall PFF grade

One of the most athletic LBs in the NFL and a long-time stalwart in the middle of the Falcons defense, Deion Jones had another good year on a bad defense in 2020. Jones is a tackling machine who uses his athleticism to blow up plays in the backfield and chase down runs. He’s also been an excellent coverage player through most of his career, though he did struggle a bit in 2020. Notably, the switch to Raheem Morris’ more blitz-heavy approach resulted in Jones’ best ever season as a pass rusher with 4.5 sacks. That could mean good things for him in Dean Pees’ new system, which should utilize his talents in similar ways.

Foyesade Oluokun

6’2, 230 | RAS: 9.16 | 2020 Stats: 117 total tackles, 78 solo, 10.7% missed tackle rate, 4.0 TFL | 3.0 sacks, 4 FF, 13 total pressures | 4 PD, 2 INT, 74.2% completion rate allowed, 87.8 passer rating allowed | 56.6 overall PFF grade

A former sixth-round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft, Foyesade Oluokun surpassed all expectations when placed into a full-time starting role in 2020. His coverage was more consistent, his run defense was sound, and he also showed some intriguing talent as a pass rusher. I cannot fathom his PFF grade being so low, as I think most Falcons analysts would say that Oluokun had a better overall season than Jones last year. Regardless, Oluokun heads in to 2021 as the starter opposite Jones—if both players continue playing at a high level, this could be one of the best LB duos in the NFL.

Mykal Walker

6’3, 230 | RAS: 8.14 | 2020 Stats: 45 total tackles, 31 solo, 4.3% missed tackle rate, 1.0 TFL | 1 FF, 2 total pressures | 1 PD, 85.7% completion rate allowed, 113.4 passer rating allowed | 74.0 overall PFF grade

Atlanta’s fourth-round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, Mykal Walker had a very encouraging rookie season as a rotational LB. Playing about a third of the defensive snaps, Walker was at his best as a run defender. He missed very few tackles and used his size to his advantage. Walker’s coverage still needs work and he wasn’t nearly as productive as a blitzer as his college background would suggest, but he’ll have a significant role in Dean Pees’ defense. Expect Walker to get some opportunities as an EDGE player in 3-4 looks, as he played the SAM role quite a bit at Fresno State.

THE DEPTH COMPETITION: Brandon Copeland, Dorian Etheridge, Erroll Thompson

Brandon Copeland

6’2, 265 | RAS: 8.33 | 2020 Stats: 12 total tackles, 6 solo, 1.0 TFL, 0% missed tackle rate | 1 total pressure | 100% completion rate allowed, 118.7 passer rating allowed | 65.2 overall PFF grade

One of the first free agent additions for the Falcons this offseason, Brandon Copeland is a versatile LB who has experience playing both off-ball and on the edge. A former UDFA in the 2013 draft class, Copeland bounced around the league for several years before landing a starting job with the Jets in 2018. It was his most productive season as an EDGE, as he put together an impressive 5.0 sacks, 8.0 TFL, and 27 total pressures. Expect Copeland to play a versatile role for the Falcons as both an inside linebacker on run downs and a pass rusher in nickel.

Dorian Etheridge

6’2, 233 | RAS: 5.29 | 2020 Stats (College): 50 total tackles, 32 solo, 9.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1FF, 2 PD

One of the Falcons’ two UDFA additions at linebacker, Dorian Etheridge spent his college career at Louisville. He had a productive senior season as a run defender and blitzer, including 9.5 TFL and 3.0 sacks. Etheridge has good size and short-area quickness, but he lacks the long speed to match up with TEs and RBs in coverage. Etheridge has potential as a base package and special teams linebacker, with some upside as a blitzer. He’ll be competing with fellow UDFA Erroll Thompson for the fifth LB spot on the depth chart.

Erroll Thompson

6’0, 240 | RAS: 1.66 | 2020 Stats (College): 95 total tackles, 35 solo, 4.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 PD, 1 INT, 65.1 overall PFF grade

An old-school linebacker through-and-through, Erroll Thompson joined the Falcons as a UDFA after the 2021 NFL Draft. He’s a big, heavy thumper in the run game who brings physicality and aggressiveness on every play. A defensive leader at Mississippi State, Thompson has high football IQ and good instincts as a run stuffer. Athletically, he’s quite limited—he’s a run down player only and will need to be schemed out of coverage assignments. Thompson’s instincts and block shedding ability could make him an asset as a rotational run-stuffing LB, and he’s got upside on special teams as well.