The Falcons invested some serious capital on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, adding players like Jessie Bates and Calais Campbell to help transform the unit. Outside of a couple notable exceptions, however, the linebacker position does not have a household name joining its ranks.
Instead, Atlanta will look for players like Arnold Ebiketie and Troy Andersen to make a leap in Year 2. The two second-round picks in 2022 had flashes of excellence last year, particularly Ebiketie, and they look to have the potential for much more. Around them, the Falcons are cobbling together a mix of veterans and younger players with upside.
Let’s dig into the linebacker position a bit more.
Starters: Lorenzo Carter, Troy Andersen, Kaden Elliss
Take the starter label with a massive grain of salt at this point in the year. There are so many factors at play here, the most important of which is new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen. Just how will his deployment of Atlanta’s outside linebackers differ from previous coordinator Dean Pees?
If he does stay true to his 4-3 background, Nielsen has some interesting decisions to make at linebacker. Players like Ebiketie, Carter and DeAngelo Malone are probably better suited for a 3-4 role than a true hand-in-the-dirt job, but there are plenty of ways around that. Carter’s spot here could easily have gone to Bud Dupree, Ebiketie or even Mykal Walker. As is the case with Atlanta’s running backs, we shouldn’t be too concerned with labels here.
Andersen and Elliss are much more solidified in my mind as starters. The Falcons made room for Andersen in the starting rotation late last year to give him a good long look, and he was a standout special teams player as a rookie. He has all of the athletic traits that coaches covet, but he still needs to improve his diagnosing skills and coverage instincts. Elliss made a big jump for the Saints last season, recording a career-high seven sacks, and he’ll be given the chance to prove that wasn’t a one-time thing.
Key reserves: Arnold Ebiketie, Bud Dupree, Mykal Walker, DeAngelo Malone, Ade Ogundeji
While the top-end talent might not be there quite yet, Atlanta will have a lot of depth to play around with in the rotation. Ebiketie had the fifth-most pressures among rookie edge defenders last season, per Pro Football Focus, and each of the four ahead of him played at least 100 more pass-rush snaps. He may find himself in a bit of a tweener role in this defense, but Ebiketie is going to see plenty of action.
Dupree was a notable addition late in the initial wave of free agency, and he is another veteran like Carter who can add experience to the pass-rush group. He earns a mention on this list only because Dupree’s position is listed as linebacker on the roster, but I’d expect him to play closer to the line of scrimmage.
Will Nielsen feel differently about Walker than Pees did? A slew of splash plays in 2021 led Walker to a starting role out of the gate last season, but his role diminished as the year went along and he eventually ceded that starting job to Andersen. Can Walker regain any of that lost ground? Then there’s Malone and Ogundeji, who have not yet become more than role players for Atlanta. Given the veteran talent now around them, Malone and Ogundeji may have more specialized assignments where they can play to their respective strengths.
Roster hopefuls: Nate Landman, Dorian Etheridge, Tae Davis, Mike Jones Jr., Andre Smith
Landman earned a mid-season promotion to the active roster, and he became a key special teams contributor. That bodes well for his chances to stick with the team after camp once again, but Davis could seriously challenge him for a final roster spot. The fifth-year linebacker has played in 45 games during his time with the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants, and he boasts a strong special teams background as well.
Etheridge saw a lot of action during the preseason last year, and he was on Atlanta’s practice squad from Week 6 on. In 2021, he played in seven games for the Falcons and also made an impact on special teams. Jones Jr. was a former team captain at LSU, which is a quality a number of Falcons rookies share, and Smith has four seasons of NFL experience to call upon when camp begins.
Outlook: Uncertain with upside
Of all the defensive positions for Atlanta, the linebacker unit feels like the one most in flux. That’s partially due to the fact that we haven’t yet seen players like Andersen and Elliss routinely make impact plays for the Falcons, and partially due to the team’s investment elsewhere. Players like Andersen, Elliss and Ebiketie – if we continue to call him a linebacker – likely represent the future of this position for Atlanta, at least in the short term.
For the 2023 season, however, there may be some growing pains for the Falcons, especially at inside linebacker. Rashaan Evans was a valuable veteran presence last year, and he is still available if the team decides to make a summer addition heading into camp. But I get the sense that Atlanta feels good about Elliss and Andersen making that next step, and it wants to clear the space to allow that to happen.
The Falcons have added enough quality players around the linebackers to offer support as this new-look group comes together. How exactly Nielsen decides to deploy his linebackers, especially the outside linebackers, could be the deciding factor in the unit’s overall success.