Pass rushing was not the only thing missing from the Falcons defense last season. The linebacking core underpreformed and lacked speed and athleticism. Paul Warrilow is a terrific story but not the best linebacker. Phillip Wheeler filled in nicely but is well past the prime of his career. Brooks Reed could barely stay healthy after inking a five-year deal with Atlanta last offseason. Atlanta’s linebacking core needed an injection of youth and athleticism this offseason, and Dan Quinn addressed it in the draft.
The Falcons selected the speedy linebacker Deion Jones out of LSU in the second round and De’Vondre Campbell out of Minnesota in the fourth round. Both of these guys have promising upsides with unique abilities, but even with such abilities it seemed foolish that both of these guys could be starting in week one for Atlanta. However, D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that both of these guys were seeing first team reps at training camp.
WLB De'Vondre Campbell, MLB Deion Jones and SLB Vic Beasley at linebacker for first team defense.
— D. Orlando Ledbetter (@DOrlandoAJC) August 6, 2016
This is just the opening weeks of training camp, so it is unlikely that this will be the starting group heading into week one, but it is a promising start and perhaps a glimpse of the future. Dan Quinn wants the defense to be fast and physical. It showed in the Falcons first-round pick Keanu Neal, who brings top flight physicality to the safety position, and it shows in these linebackers as well.
Deion Jones possesses unique speed for the position. His 4.38 40-yard dash that he recorded at his pro day was by far the lowest in this year’s draft class for linebackers. There is no doubt he is going to have to get bigger. At 230 pounds, he is undersized for a linebacker, but he is capable of delivering ferocious hits and is a tackling machine. I do not expect his size to be much of a problem for long. Jones recorded 100 tackles, 5 sacks and 2 interceptions for LSU last year. He has a terrific chance at being an opening day starter for Atlanta.
De’Vondre Campbell was one of the most intriguing picks of this year’s draft class. Like Jones, Campbell needs to put on some weight as he transitions to the NFL. He has a unique frame for a linebacker standing at 6′ 4″, weighing 232 pounds. His height gives him advantages that other linebackers do not have, but it is his athleticism that makes him stand out. Campbell ran a sub 4.6 40-yard dash at the combine and is another guy with terrific sideline to sideline speed. Coming out of college, scouts believed he relied on that athleticism a little to much, which would get him into trouble. However, the word around Flowery Branch is that Campbell is adapting well to what Dan Quinn is trying to do. He has been very coachable, and if he continues to improve, it will not be long until he is a starter on this defense.
The tweet also revealed that Vic Beasley is continuing his transition to strong-side linebacker. Beasley spent the primary of last season as the LEO in Dan Quinn’s system. After a less than spectacular start, Quinn began moving Beasley around the defense more. He spent more time in coverage and less time as a pass rusher. While most Falcons fans wanted Beasley to be a pass rushing star, he was much more effective in the second half of the season both in coverage and as a pass rusher. His combination of speed and strength should allow him to excel at the position, as Beasley looks to make the full-time transition to linebacker.
It is no secret that Dan Quinn wants to get faster and more athletic on defense. Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell fit this to a T. Both high-upside players with some coachable technical flaws.This group together has a grand total of one-year of NFL experience, which could definitely be worrisome throughout year one, but the athleticism and versatility they possess is enough for fans to get excited about. It is unlikely that all three will be starting by week one, but they will see a lot of time on the field together and this could be the starting linebacking core of the future.