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A post-draft look at Linebacker


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A position of strength, no matter how it shakes out.

By Dave Choate May 29, 2019, 12:00pm EDT

The Falcons have consistently made linebacker a priority under Dan Quinn, and as a result, they have a lot of talent at the position. Their decision to not invest draft capital or significant free agent dollars into the group seems unlikely to hurt them, as they have three starting-caliber players and a ton of intriguing depth.

When you’re talking yourself into this Falcons defense, as we’re all going to do at some point during this offseason, looking at the individual position grouping helps to make it clear that actual upside exists. For pound-for-pound athleticism, it’s tough to beat linebacker, as we’ll see when we take a deeper look today.

Let’s cover the starters, reserves, and outlook for the group.

Starters

Deion Jones is a star. Few linebackers in the NFL, if any, enjoy his sideline-to-sideline speed, coverage ability, and knack for the big turnover. He led the team in interceptions in 2016 and 2017 and was second on the team in 2018 despite missing a bunch of games, and the difference when the team doesn’t have him on the field is pretty stark. He heads into the year as a mortal lock for more than 100 tackles (which is impactful given how much ground he covers and how effectively he limits yards after the catch, and he should be good for at least one game-changing interception of a Drew Brees dead duck pass. Jones’ ability to limit mistakes and make plays lifts the entire defense.

He’ll be joined in a full-time starter role by De’Vondre Campbell. He knocked for a couple of off games in 2018 but enjoyed perhaps his best NFL season with Deion Jones missing from the lineup for a long stretch of the year and Duke Riley struggling next to him at times. Campbell’s a physical, well-rounded linebacker who shines when given an opportunity to get after the passer, as he has 3.5 sacks and 9 quarterback hits over the past two seasons. With Jones back and healthy, the Falcons will likely experiment with having Campbell up at the line of scrimmage a bit more often given that ability, but regardless of how they use him, he’s a stone solid starter who could break out further in his age-26 season.

The Falcons run enough nickel looks that the third linebacker is not, technically speaking, a full-time starter. The team will still find plenty of opportunities for Foye Oluokun, who stepped in for Riley partway through the 2018 season and showed an intriguing blend of athleticism and coverage skills. He’ll be just 24 and a second-year former sixth round pick in 2019, so it’s reasonable to suggest he can be considerably better than he was in his rookie season, when he already looked like at least a capable starter.

This is a good group, in other words, with the potential to be one of the league’s best if Jones is healthy and Campbell and Oluokun continue growing.

Reserves

What the team lacks in stellar depth it makes up for with a blend of youth, quality experience, special teams value, and upside.

Start with Duke Riley. The much-maligned linebacker has missed far too many tackles over the last two seasons and isn’t going to be able to fight his way into a starting role after that, but he’s been rock solid on special teams since the Falcons started actually giving him those snaps, and he’ll only be 25 years old when the season begins. It’s way too early to give up on him being a quality contributor given his age and the ability that drew the eyes of infamous LSU linebacker lover Dan Quinn, so I expect he’ll enter the year as the team’s top reserve.He’s followed by a couple of savvy veterans potentially competing for a single spot. Bruce Carter proved himself to be a strong contributor against the run in 2018 and a useful special teamer in his own right, and that could be enough to earn him a spot. Of course, if it comes down to him or longtime Falcon Kemal Ishmael, the latter may win given that he’s been one of the biggest ST contributors this team has had over the last several seasons, and remains a useful player when you need a stop in short yardage or goal line situations.

Beyond that, you have a handful of younger players who should be fighting over (at most) a single spot. Rookie Tre’ Crawford is impressing early and has the athletic profile the team is looking for, Jermaine Grace has been around this team before and has flashed special teams value in his limited chances, and Del’Shawn Phillips and Yurik Bethune are rookie UDFAs who could push for spots like Richard Jarvis did a year ago. I think Crawford or Grace will ultimately make the roster, and the other should make the practice squad.

Outlook

Health is a question mark at every position and Jones just lost a significant chunk of 2018, but this group is a promising one. Debo’s a legitimate star, Campbell is an underrated starter who gives the team a ton of good snaps, and Oluokun looks like he’ll be a quality starter for years to come. Add in the depth options and linebacker ought to be a strength for Atlanta again.

It’s also a critically important group because the secondary and defensive line are both in a bit of flux, with a contract year for Vic Beasley, new additions like Tyeler Davison and Ra’Shede Hageman at DT, and Isaiah Oliver and Damontae Kazee starting for the first time at two corner spots. Jones’ range and Campbell’s physicality gives the Falcons stability and talent where they need it most, and if the defense is resurgent this year, you can bet that those two will be a major factor.

Depth indeed. Foye is a player to watch.

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https://www.thefalcoholic.com/2019/5/29/18641767/the-evolution-of-the-falcons-lb-group-2008-2018-curtis-lofton-stephen-nicholas-deion-jones

The evolution of the Falcons LB group, 2008-2018

 

This one isn’t gonna be much fun, I’m not gonna lie to you.

By Dave Choate May 29, 2019, 8:00am EDT

At this exact moment, the Falcons have one of their strongest linebacker corps in the last decade-plus, if not longer. It has been a long, bumpy road to get here, with a handful of a good players and great seasons along the way.

The Falcons have invested multiple early round picks into the position group over time, including a first rounder (Sean Weatherspoon), two second rounders (Curtis Lofton and Deion Jones), multiple third rounders (Akeem Dent and Duke Riley), and a raft of late rounders and undrafted players. Some of their biggest success stories have always come from that draft haul, though the immortal Mike Peterson and pre-Dimitroff selection Stephen Nicholas played major roles in the early going.

             
             
             
             
             
             
             
             
             
             
             
             

Honestly, the biggest success story of those early years was probably Nicholas, a Rich McKay pick who started 50 games (playing in 101 total) with particularly productive seasons in 2009, 2010, and 2012. Lofton was a rock solid run defender and underrated linebacker overall who bolted for the Saints after four years, earning him our eternal enmity, while ‘Spoon was sporadically great but ultimately derailed in a major way by an ever-increasing spate of injuries. Both Lofton and Weatherspoon could have been Falcons great, given their talent, but for reasons outside of their performance on the field it never quite happened.

Still, those groups from 2008-2012 generally had at least two quality starters every single season, allowing the Falcons to stay afloat despite some talent deficits elsewhere on the defense. The major shift happened when the team’s selection of Dent didn’t bear the fruit they thought it would, which turned 2013-2015 into an epoch of Falcon linebacking that is probably not regarded fondly.

In hindsight, the team made some ill-fated decisions. The selection of Prince Shembo was not one we supported when it was made, given Shembo’s uneven game and more crucially accusations of sexual battery and the subsequent death by suicide of a young woman. I should note that Shembo was never convicted of a crime for that, but the mere fact that he was linked to something so serious (and make no mistake, the connections did not seem tenuous) made it surprising that he was even a draft day target for Atlanta. Shembo turned in one solid enough season before he was arrested for aggravated cruelty to animals after allegedly kicking and injuring his girlfriend’s dog. The dog subsequently died, Shembo ultimately settled the case, but the Falcons cut him when the charge first surfaced and his career with Atlanta (and, to this point, in the NFL) was over. Given that Shembo was penciled in as a major contributor and was drafted to be one, the pick represented a disastrous use of a draft selection, and the kind of risk the Falcons (obviously then, more obviously now) shouldn’t have taken in the first place.

While Shembo carved out a major role in 2014, the team infamously started dismantling their group the year before that. Weatherspoon suffered what would become a recurring series of injuries and the team began to phase out Nicholas, resulting in the Falcons starting Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu at linebacker that year. Both were UDFA success stories who made the team and made an immediate impact, but Bartu only lasted a couple of years in Atlanta despite some solid football.

Worrilow was a tremendous story and a solid linebacker who the team leaned on heavily thanks to injuries and shaky talent elsewhere in the corps. Despite piling up over 300 tackles in three seasons and enjoying success against the run and as a pass rusher, Worrilow’s misadventures in coverage would earn him the enmity of much of the Falcons fanbase and would eventually prompt Dan Quinn to invest a second rounder in a gifted coverage wizard in Deion Jones to replace him. Worrilow probably deserved better than being saddled with close to 100% of the defensive snaps on some bad defenses with very little help, but at least he landed on his feet with the Eagles and started eight games there a year ago.

Since then, the Falcons have only had one notable miss at linebacker, with Duke Riley not living up to his potential to this point. Debo has been stellar, De’Vondre Campbell has been good-to-great as a starter, and sixth rounder Foye Oluokun shone in his opportunities last year. The team heads into 2019 with three slam dunk starting caliber players and interesting depth, at the very least.

Why did it take so long to get things right? I think it’s fair to argue that the Falcons had a good thing when they had Curtis Lofton, Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon all on the field at the same time, but contracts and injuries intruded on that picture, with ‘Spoon and Peria Jerry ranking as the two great injury-centric “what ifs” in recent Falcons history. The team was not ready to bleed as much talent as they did heading into 2013 and 2014, a problem they compounded by whiffing on picks (Dent and Shembo) and turning two UDFA gems into players asked to do everything instead of just the things they were good at, owing to the state of the defense at the time. It was, in other words, a very Falconly blend of bad luck and ineptitude, and I’m hopeful we’ve left that era behind.

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We know Debo is fast and has range, but it really sells short his instinct and anticipation that combined with his speed puts him in position to make plays that most LBs have no business making and then as the cherry on top, he has the correct leverage and technique to finish plays without allowing extra yardage.

We really struck Gold on him. He is not normal by any means. Height and stature maybe but nothing else

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1 hour ago, LightningDawg58 said:

Debo makes all 10 other defenders look way better so yes I’d agree he definitely has an effect on DeVondra

A lot of guys are like that. You can have a Top 10 D with guys that look really good next to stars. That’s why they leave, land big contracts, and suck with their new team. 

Nothing wrong with guys like that. You need them and they can play like pro bowlers with the right guys around them. 

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14 minutes ago, NeonDeion said:

A lot of guys are like that. You can have a Top 10 D with guys that look really good next to stars. That’s why they leave, land big contracts, and suck with their new team. 

Nothing wrong with guys like that. You need them and they can play like pro bowlers with the right guys around them. 

It can also work the other way. If a quality player is surrounded by trash, it creates the illusion the quality player isn't very good.  A superstar like Deion Jones is always going to stick out, but a quality starter who isn't at a pro bowl level can get pulled down.

For instance, our signing of Jamon Brown is a good example. He played on a totally broken OL. The moment he came in the OL started playing MUCH better, so he did lift it up, but he still appeared to be a below average player. I recall our horrible offensive guards back in the day making Todd McClure look like he sucked, but once we fixed the OG issues, he nearly made pro bowl a few times and is now in the ROH.

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