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Falcons 2022 training camp battles: Inside linebacker

One of the fiercest battles on the roster lies ahead.

NFL: JAN 09 Saints at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re not that far away from training camp, which means it’s an excellent time to look at the state of some of the biggest position battles on the roster. We’re moving along to a position group where the competition will be legitimately fierce: Inside linebacker.

If the competition figures to be more of a formality at nickel and safety, the insider linebacker battle is anything but. With five legitimate contenders for starting jobs—one comes with an asterisk we’ll get to—this is one of the most competitive position groups on the entire Falcons roster. It’s also a pivotal one, given that improved linebacker play will help this defense take a major step forward.

Let’s take a look back at where this position has been over the last decade, and then turn our eyes to where it might be going.

The recent history at inside linebacker

It could be the end of an era in Atlanta this year. Deion Jones has been an unquestioned—if sometimes injured—starter more or less continuously since the 2016 season. For a long time, he was the middle linebacker in 4-3 sets, with De’Vondre Campbell running alongside him when the team had two middle linebackers on the field and in nickel sets. At the height of his powers, Jones was a transformative talent and someone other teams hoped to get a carbon copy of in their own draft classes, and he authored some of the most memorable plays in recent team history.

When Campbell was allowed to walk in 2020, Foye Oluokun took over and worked alongside Jones throughout the last two seasons before signing a big free agent deal with the Jaguars, a reward for a season where he was responsible for many of the team’s biggest turnovers. The fact that Jones isn’t even a lock to still be on the team come Week 1 means Atlanta may be truly turning over this position group for the first time in seven seasons.

Prior to Jones, the Falcons had Paul Worrilow working as the starter from 2013-2015, having impressed Mike Smith and company enough to go from undrafted free agent to full-time tackling machine. He, in turn, replaced Akeem Dent and Mike Peterson, who had held down the position in 2012. The upshot is that for the last decade—and even further back, if you look at Curtis Lofton holding a starting job from 2008-2011 and Keith Brooking from 1999-2007—the Falcons have had quite a bit of continuity at inside linebacker.

Whether that continues in 2022, where the Falcons find a pair of long-term starters for now and the immediate future, depends on who wins these jobs and how they fare. There are, as I noted above, five logical contenders for those roles.

The contenders

There are essentially five players jockeying for starting jobs at one of the most competitive position groups on the roster. Two are incumbents—Jones being one, Mykal Walker the other—plus a pair of free agent additions and an intriguing draft pick. Let’s walk through the contenders right now.

Deion Jones

Las Vegas Raiders v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Jones is in a curious place at the moment. The soon-to-be 28-year-old linebacker should still be in the prime of his career, and it’s sort of astonishing to think that someone so productive and well-regarded just a short time ago should be on the verge of being replaced. That’s exactly what’s happening, however, with Jones logging a third straight season that was superficially solid but below his lofty early-career standards. This one was arguably the worst of his career.

Working against Jones is that he is currently the most expensive player remaining in Atlanta (besides Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett, who were recently given new deals), having the highest 2022 salary. Between the trade rumors, Arthur Smith’s seemingly pointed habit of not mentioning Jones among the contenders at inside linebacker, and the number of acquisitions at the position group, it seems clear the Falcons are gearing up to move on.

That wouldn’t be happening if Jones was playing at the level he established early in his career, but he’s not. Last year, Jones was brutal for long stretches in coverage, putting up a career worst completion percentage allowed, the second-most yards allowed through the air of any Falcons defender behind Fabian Moreau, and the worst passer rating allowed of any full-time starter. Coupled with the team using him less as a pass rusher and Jones seeing less success in that role, plus some glaring missed tackle opportunities and the first interception-less season of his career, it was probably just about as poorly as the veteran linebacker could have played. Jones could bounce back in spectacular fashion—the talent has not mysteriously disappeared and this really felt like a rock bottom year in a new defense—but given that this has been a slow-but-steady trend for Jones expectations should probably be a bit more modest.

All that said, if he’s healthy enough to get on the field and isn’t traded, of course he’ll have a role. Jones at his peak was a hyper-athletic sideline-to-sideline star capable of punishing mistakes and picking up timely turnovers, and there are still glimpses of that player on a weekly basis. Add in that Jones was adjusting to a new defense and a new role and it’s not hard to envision him finding greater success, especially if he manages to carve out a starting role again. Given the way the team has added talent at inside linebacker and his cap charge, though, it’s still hard to envision this team doing anything but aggressively shopping him once he’s healthy.

Mykal Walker

NFL: NOV 28 Falcons at Jaguars Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If Jones is a player who appears to be on the downslope of his career—bookmark this for ridicule if he lands elsewhere and excels, a real possibility—Walker’s arrow is very much pointing up. The 2020 draft pick had a few missed tackles last year, but every other aspect of his game appeared to improve, albeit in limited snaps.

Walker was a major factor on special teams, a much-improved option in coverage, and the author of one of the biggest plays of the year, an interception returned for a touchdown against the Panthers. The fact that he played under 20% of the defensive snaps makes it difficult to say how he’d fare as a full-time starter, but everything we’ve seen from him to this point suggests he’d at least be a capable and fun option at inside linebacker if he got the chance.

Walker is one of just two players who seems destined to be here past 2022, as his contract runs through the 2023 season and the next two names on this list are on one-year deals. The Falcons have to go purely by merit when deciding starting jobs given Pees’ insistence that this defense improve, but if Walker looks capable enough this summer he should get a leg up on the veteran signings because of the potential that he could be an asset during a critical 2023.

Walker’s evidently talented, young, and both physical and aggressive enough to excel in Dean Pees’ scheme with an opportunity to do so. I think he’ll make his case and grab a starting job this summer.

Rashaan Evans

NFL: SEP 29 Titans at Falcons

Here’s my other projected starter. Evans is obviously a Dean Pees favorite, as Maria Martin recently reported, and his familiarity with Pees is enough to think he’ll get an honest crack at a starting job.

Of course, it’s not just that. Evans was replaced down the stretch in Tennessee, but we know that Pees values players who are good at leading and executing consistently, and Evans brings both strong run stopping chops and reliability to this linebacker group. He’s not a plus pass rusher—though he can help out in a pinch—and his coverage ability is not on the same level as peak Jones or likely Walker in a full-time role. He’s consistent, physical, and can clamp down on the run, and those are all things Pees values.

It may just end up being a one-year stint in Atlanta, but the marriage of Pees’ familiarity with Evans and his ability against the run being valuable for a defense that couldn’t get the job done a year ago should let him walk into a starting job.

Nick Kwiatkoski

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The most formidable competition Walker will face, assuming again that Jones is not in the picture. Kwiatkoski is the oldest member of this group and a solid player, albeit one coming off a quiet season cut short by injury.

In 2020, he was a full-time starter in 12 games, even notching a sack against Matt Ryan and the Falcons. He was solid in coverage both that year and in his career year in 2019 for Chicago, where he notched three sacks and a safety as well, but a few misadventures covering tight ends had him working as a backup in 2021. He didn’t see the field much on defense last year and scuffled a bit when he did, though Kwiatkoski was a major contributor on special teams.

As an experienced veteran who has shown he can credibly start in the past and was an asset in coverage not all that long ago, Kwiatkoski will definitely be in the mix for a starting job. If he settles in as a reserve instead, the coaching staff will feel good about having him as perhaps their top option behind the starters, and Marquice Williams will find plenty of use for him on special teams.

Troy Andersen

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If all goes well, Andersen is a future stud here, but there’s a long and winding way between where we are now and that outcome.

The Falcons obviously fell in love with Andersen because of his borderline absurd athleticism, which showed up regardless of whether he was playing quarterback, running back, or (more recently) linebacker. He’s fast, strong, and has a toolkit that could translate to greatness with time, refinement, and a hell of a lot of work. Whether you’d like to call him a lottery ticket, a lump of clay, or some other familiar metaphor, Andersen is intriguing precisely because he has seemingly unlimited upside

What’s working against Andersen this year is experience and potentially readiness. He hasn’t been playing linebacker that long and has a steep learning curve, even if inside linebackers coach Frank Bush lauds the work he’s putting in. In a room filled with experienced players, including three that either worked with this coaching staff last season or with Pees in the recent past, he’s going to have to shine big-time to get a starting role. As we saw with Richie Grant last year, if the coaching staff doesn’t feel Andersen is ready, they’re not going to rush him along.

Andersen’s skill set suggests he’ll be an immediate asset on special teams and may get a little work on offense for fun-loving-if-never-smiling Arthur Smith, but chances are a starting role in this group is a little ways away. That said, don’t be surprised if he makes it interesting.

Who wins the battle?

As you guessed if you read the writeups above, I have Mykal Walker and Rashaan Evans emerging as the two starters when all is said and done. That’s a more confident guess for Evans than Walker, given Pees’ obvious affection for Evans, but it feels like Walker’s time to shine and I expect he’ll do so.

Even if Jones is dealt—and again, we still really have no idea what’s in his future at this point—the Falcons have put themselves in the position to have a solid, deep group with some real upside. Evans and Walker (or even Kwiatkoski) gives them a better duo against the run than Jones and Oluokun offered, if only because Jones in particular scuffled mightily there, and Walker in particular has the ability to be more of an asset in coverage than either of last year’s starters. Andersen’s sky-high potential rounds out the group, and I haven’t even mentioned second-year pro Dorian Etheridge, who isn’t in line to start but was a solid special teamer and flashed against the run last summer.

Regardless of how it shakes out, this will be one of the more compelling battles of camp, especially if Andersen makes things interesting out of the gate in his rookie season.