It’s been easy to overlook the Falcons’ interior linebacking group this offseason because of the team’s outlook at other positions. Although the loss of Foye Oluokun, the NFL’s leading tackler last season, in free agency certainly hurt, the team’s non-edge group of linebackers is a really intriguing bunch.
Given the prioritization of pass rushing for the outside linebackers, the inside group has a little bit of a different role than it did under Dan Quinn. In addition to holding up in coverage, a necessity in today’s NFL, these interior guys need to be able to take on blockers more frequently and able to quickly react to changing gap assignments up front. As a former inside linebackers coach, Dean Pees will ask a lot of this group, so let’s dive into it.
The Starters: Deion Jones, Rashaan Evans
2021 stats: 16 games played, 16 games started | 137 tackles, 8 TFL, 2 sacks, 6 PD, 1 FF | 34.6 PFF grade | 6.24 RAS
Perhaps no player was more negatively affected by the defensive scheme change than Jones. The former Pro Bowler and defensive playmaker had by far his worst season, according to Pro Football Focus, and looked a bit more hesitant than usual out there on the field. On top of that, when Jones was in position to make plays, he uncharacteristically came up short.
With Oluokun now in Jacksonville, Atlanta will have the chance to adjust Jones’s role, if it still believes he is part of the long-term defensive plan. Jones is absolutely capable of having a bounce-back season, but his status as a foundational piece of the defense feels very shaky right now.
2021 stats: 12 games played, 11 games started | 57 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 PD, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR | 44.5 PFF grade | 5.15 RAS
One of the many newcomers at the position, Evans gets the early nod as a starter due to his familiarity with Pees and his system. Evans, a former first-round pick out of Alabama, was selected by the Titans with a role in Pees’s defense in mind. His best season came in 2019, Pees’s final season in Tennessee when Evans recorded 111 tackles, nine tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks.
Evans brings a bit more size to the position for the Falcons, and he’s still only 26 years old. If Evans can return to his 2019 form, he will help mitigate the loss of Oluokun.
Key Role Players: Troy Andersen, Mykal Walker, Nick Kwiatkoski
2021 stats: 15 games played, 15 games started | 147 tackles, 14 TFL, 2 sacks, 7 PD, 2 INT, 1 FR | 10.00 RAS
A Day 2 pick for the Falcons, Andersen could end up seeing the field sooner rather than later. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound linebacker has the ideal length and athleticism to make plays all over the field. Seriously, his closest Relative Athletic Score comps are Von Miller, Bruce Irvin, Luke Kuechly and Lorenzo Carter. In his first season at linebacker for Montana State, Andersen was named FCS Defensive Player of the Year.
He transitioned to the position after playing quarterback and running back, illustrating his overall athletic ability and football intelligence to learn and master a position so quickly. That makes him a difficult but exciting prospect to project. He could emerge as a star at camp and an early starter for this defense, or it could take him a little bit longer to adjust to the heightened speed and talent levels around him.
Whatever the case, Andersen will be a player to monitor closely in camp.
2021 stats: 17 games played, 2 games started | 35 tackles, 4 PD, 1 INT, 1 FR, 1 TD | 71.3 PFF grade | 8.15 RAS
A player who usually makes good things happen on the field, Walker’s lack of consistent playing time in his first two seasons has been head-scratching. After a year of learning Pees’s system, Walker could make a strong push for one of the two starting roles at inside linebacker. Even if he doesn’t grab a starting role, he is versatile enough to serve a fill-in role both on the interior and off the edge.
The Falcons may consider a player like that valuable in his own right, similar to the way teams like reserve swing tackles. I’d love to see Walker get more run on the field, though.
2021 stats: 8 games played, 0 games started | 21 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 FF | 59.4 PFF grade | 7.28 RAS
A victim of the recent leadership change in Las Vegas, Kwiatkowski is one of the newest members of Atlanta’s defense. Hampered by an ankle injury in 2021, Kwiatkoski did start all 12 games he played for the Raiders in 2020.
A bigger linebacker who still possesses decent athleticism, Kwiatkoski could be an interesting pressure-package option as evidenced by his seven career sacks. He brings a little bit of a different skill set to this group, which should give him value. It’s also likely Kwiatkoski will have a sizeable role on special teams.
Fighting to make the roster: Dorian Etheridge, Nathan Landman, Rashad Smith
2021 stats: 7 games played, 0 games started | 1 tackle | 5.29 RAS
Don’t be surprised if Etheridge makes a serious push for a roster spot. He spent most of last year on the practice squad, but he was one of Atlanta’s favorite players to activate on game day – as evidenced by his seven games played.
Those activations had more to do with special teams than anything else, but it gave Etheridge some valuable experience, and he’s also had a full year to learn this scheme. This is one to keep an eye on, even if this group is crowded.
2021 stats: 7 games played, 7 games started | 63 tackles, 6 TFL, 4 PD, 1 FF | 6.41 RAS
A standout for much of his career at Colorado, Landman should be a great camp body with the opportunity to land a spot on Atlanta’s practice squad. He earned all-conference honors in four of his five seasons, becoming the first player in school history to achieve that feat.
Landman recorded 10 sacks and 42 tackles for a loss at Colorado, so he offers some ability to make plays in the backfield. He looks like a throwback-style player and showed sound gap discipline and great run defense in college.
2021 stats: N/A
An undrafted player out of Florida Atlantic, Smith was signed to Atlanta’s practice squad in December. He will have a true uphill battle to make the roster, and he could be in for a fight to keep his spot on the practice squad. Smith appeared in two games for the Eagles in 2020, which is the only action he’s seen in his NFL career.
He was a playmaker in college with 11.5 sacks and seven interceptions, and he’ll need to show that ability in the coming months.
Outlook: A chance to surprise some people
Even with the subtraction of Foye Oluokun, this is a group that offers some upside. If you’re a buy-low type of investor, then the Falcons’ inside linebackers are absolutely for you. Jones is coming off of his worst season, Evans hasn’t looked as sharp since Pees left Tennessee, Walker hasn’t been able to reliably crack the rotation, Anderson is a rookie and Kwiatkoski is a relative unknown. However, with each of these players, there’s legitimate reason to believe that a bounce-back or breakthrough season is in play in 2022, and if Jones is moved greater opportunities could await others.
That’s a large number of players who could see their stocks rise over the next calendar year, but even if only a few can take a jump forward, the defense should benefit. Given Pees’s background as an inside linebackers coach, this position will receive a lot of attention as the heart of the defense. Outside of Jones and Andersen, there may not be a player with Pro Bowl upside here, but the collective group should have a decent floor.