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Falcons' rookie linebackers showing flashes as they learn on the fly


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http://www.espn.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/208657/falcons-rookie-linebackers-showing-flashes-as-they-learn-on-the-fly

 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- A noticeable image from the first few days of Atlanta Falcons' training camp was rookie De'Vondre Campbell nodding his head and demonstratively moving his hands while engaged in conversation with linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich.

It wasn't a tongue-lashing, but the conversation certainly was intense. One could tell Campbell took to heart the words of Ulbrich, a former NFL linebacker who played 10 NFL seasons with the 49ers.

"The thing I appreciate the most is his experience," Campbell, a fourth-round pick from Minnesota, said of Ulbrich. "He played in the league for a really long time, and he played my position. Everything he says I try to soak in because he knows what he's talking about, from personal experience. Just having that experience, it makes it a lot easier for me to believe stuff that he's telling me. So every day in the meeting room and out here in practice, I just try and pick his brain and get as much information from him as I can.''

 

It might be a case of information overload for both Campbell and fellow rookie inside linebacker Deion Jones, the second-round pick from LSU. Both saw extensive first-team reps Tuesday, with Campbell playing the weakside linebacker and Jones the middle. Both have shown flashes through five practices, including Jones with his blazing speed and Campbell with both the speed and length to thrive in coverage. And both have the tools to help improve the Falcons' third-down defense. The next phase is getting more accustomed to the defense in preparation for a game situation, with the Falcons set to host the Redskins in next Thursday's preseason opener.

Ulbrich said he's pleased with what he's seen thus far.

"With all these guys, I try to give them instant feedback as the day goes," Ulbrich said. "I try not to get in their head pre-snap and before the plays, but try to give them instant feedback after so we don't error repeat. ... The youngsters, they've got less reps. They haven't seen a lot of this stuff. So sometimes, they need a little more of that [feedback]."

Ulbrich has tinkered with his rotation at inside linebacker, giving Jones and Campbell a chance to work alongside veterans Paul Worrilow and Sean Weatherspoon, respectively. Worrilow led the team in tackles the past three seasons but doesn't possess the same type of speed at middle linebacker that Jones has. And Weatherspoon, who returned to the Falcons following a one-year hiatus in Arizona, is trying to regain his step after an injury-plagued career.

At one point, Jones and Worrilow even lined up on the field together, with Worrilow moving to the weakside spot. It made for an intriguing side story, considering their ongoing competition in the middle.

"It's a mad science," Ulbrich said. "Every day it's just a little bit different. We just try to get different combinations out there. I like the veterans working with the rookies and kind of helping them along a little bit. And there are days I like the rookies in there together, where they have to lean on each other and they have to figure it out. It's just forcing them to grow every day.

"The veteran guys, I'm seeing how much they can do. The youngsters, I'm not trying to mess with them as far as position versatility. I'm trying to get them to master something. But for the guys who have been here, I want to keep stretching them and see how much they can do."

Campbell has shown the ability to do a lot, but he's still growing. It might take time for him to become totally comfortable. Some have questioned his instincts, which is an element he needs to overcome.

"I think the thing that I'm doing well, in [Ulbrich's] eyes, is I'm picking up things pretty well," Campbell said. "I've only been here for like two months now and I know the defense pretty well. There's still little detail things that I'm trying to get figured out. I need to get the little things down. I know the basics of the defense, but sometimes I'll be a step wrong in my alignment. At this level, that's very important, because one step and you allow a lineman to get up on you and, boom, it's off to the races."

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