Entering the 2021 season, it was easy to look at Atlanta’s group of linebackers, particularly the inside linebackers, as the clear strength of the defense. The emergence of A.J. Terrell and a lackluster season from Deion Jones may have shifted that notion slightly, however.
There could be a change coming to Atlanta’s inside linebacker room this offseason, so let’s take a look at what the unit accomplished.
Stats: 16 games, 137 combined tackles, 26 missed tackles (16.9%), 92 targets, 78 receptions allowed (84.8%), 884 receiving yards allowed (11.3 y/r), 8 TFL, 6 pass defenses, 1 forced fumble
Jones was largely considered one of the top defensive pieces for the Falcons coming into the season, but he didn’t perform to the level fans have come to expect. He missed a considerable number of routine tackles and wasn’t the playmaker in coverage that he’s been throughout the majority of his career.
He came one tackle shy of matching his career-high in that category, but it appears that’s largely a product of the opportunities Dean Pees’s defense provides the inside linebackers. Jones is only 27 years old, and he is still an incredible athlete, but his first year with Pees calling the shots left a lot to be desired. The lowest season grade Jones had ever earned prior to this year was a 68.7, which was still 10th among qualified linebackers in the league. For his performance in 2021, however, Jones earned a 34.6 season grade, which was fourth worst in the NFL. If he’s still here in 2022, the Falcons will be counting on huge improvement.
Stats: 17 games, 192 combined tackles, 17 missed tackles (8.7%), 59 targets, 48 receptions allowed (81.4%), 529 receiving yards allowed (11.0 y/r), 4 TFL, 6 pass defenses, 3 INTs, 1 forced fumble
Oluokun’s 2021 season was largely the inverse of his inside linebacker counterpart’s. While Jones was making some uncharacteristic mistakes, Oluokun was reaching new heights in his game. The former sixth-round pick led the NFL with 192 tackles, and he missed only a handful of Atlanta’s defensive snaps.
It seems as though every year Oluokun finds new ways to impress, but this last season may have been his most complete. There are still some elements of his game in coverage that could be fine-tuned, but Oluokun made the big plays when the Falcons needed them and could be consistently counted upon in run support. PFF lists Oluokun’s season grade as a 45.8, which marks a career-low, but anybody watching him on a weekly basis saw enough to question that grade.
Stats: 17 games, 35 combined tackles, 5 missed tackles (12.5%), 16 targets, 12 receptions allowed (75%), 150 receiving yards allowed (12.5 y/r), 4 pass defenses, 1 INT, 1 TD, 1 fumble recovery
This is the big question mark of the group. Walker seemed to really come on strong at the end of his rookie year, and he was doing some nice things on the field. It felt as though he had done enough to at least operate in a timeshare with Jones and Oluokun, but Walker only played 17 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps in 2021 compared to 36 percent as a rookie.
When on the field, Walker still made things happen.
Falcons linebacker Mykal Walker returns a Cam Newton INT to the end zone for a 66-yd pick six.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 12, 2021
Walker reached a top speed of 21.05 mph on the play, the fastest speed by a linebacker as a ball-carrier over the last five seasons (since 2017).#ATLvsCAR | #DirtyBirds pic.twitter.com/6CVmNKvpET
Arthur Smith commented on Walker’s role numerous times throughout the season, and it became clear that the Falcons viewed Jones and Oluokun as their starters. “Myk, I don’t look at as [in a] tough [spot],” Smith said after the Jacksonville game. “I look at it as a guy being a professional, which is really the minimum job requirement, but more times than not guys can’t handle it. But Myk’s done a nice job. You want guys that want to play.”
That quote seems to suggest Walker is eager to get onto the field, but the staff is making him earn his playing time behind two established starters. Walker has once again done enough to warrant a larger role next season, but we’ll see what the team has in mind.
The rest of the group
Daren Bates: 7 games, 6 combined tackles, 0 missed tackles (0%), 1 target, 1 reception allowed (100%) 3 receiving yards allowed (3 y/r)
Dorian Etheridge: 7 games, 1 combined tackle
There’s really not much to say about either Bates or Etheridge, who were essentially special teamers throughout the season. Bates is clearly much more established as a special teams sparkplug, but Etheridge made the roster as an undrafted rookie and suited up for seven games, which is notable.
It’s also notable that there really isn’t a ton of proven depth at this position, and multiple injuries would likely force the Falcons to get creative. The team may feel Etheridge has a future on defense at some point, but this really is a two-man unit with Walker feeling like an unheralded sixth man off the bench. Therefore, it’s hard to really assign a nuanced letter grade for Bates and Etheridge as defenders, but they were decent special teams guys across the board and that counts for something.