After profiling Mykal Walker’s excellence yesterday, I wanted to take a look at Atlanta’s linebacking corps as a whole. I’ve advocated for snagging a guy like Micah Parsons in the draft and moving to a 3-4 defense, and I think it’s an even better idea now with Atlanta’s woes at EDGE and the emergence of two late round picks next to Debo Jones. Let’s cue the highlight reel:
— Cameron Salerno (@cameronsalerno1) November 29, 2020
Let’s break down each guy individually. Big shoutout to LaRoy Reynolds too — he hasn’t played enough to qualify for a PFF Grade, but he’s been pretty solid and consistent for the Falcons.
As I mentioned in my piece about Walker, he’s been absolutely elite in coverage as a rookie. His 90.3 grade in coverage ranks 3rd out of 74 qualified linebackers — and he’s doing it with little to no offseason program due to COVID. His 76.9 grade overall ranks 8th out of all linebackers in the NFL, 2nd on Atlanta’s defense, and 1st among all rookie linebackers. He’s shown some chops when rushing the passer, and he’s going to be a valuable Swiss Army Knife on the Falcons defense for a long time. Outside of Deion Jones, linebacker has been a sore spot in recent years. Walker hasn’t produced much in the box score, but his play on the field cannot be undervalued. Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn’s final parting gift may be a special one.
I’m pretty proud of my bold prediction of Foye Oluokun’s breakout, but even I didn’t see this coming. I knew with De’Vondre Campbell departing that someone would have to step up at outside linebacker. I liked what I had seen from Foye, but he’s taken it to the next level in 2020. He’s been an absolute hawk (or Falcon I guess?) for the ball, racking up two sacks and four forced fumbles, three of them coming in one half of football. Those four forced fumbles lead the NFL, and he’s no slouch in other aspects of his game. On top of breaking up three passes, his 79.7 pass rush grade is good for 3rd out of 74 qualified linebackers. His overall grade has dipped to 33 out of 86 after cresting near the top 10 a few weeks ago, but his ball hawking and overall versatility are something you could only dream of out of a 6th round pick.
The man himself. I absolutely love Deion Jones. He’s a straight up playmaker and alongside Grady Jarrett — the heart and soul of the defense. I don’t like to scout the box score, but the guy just makes plays:
Deion Jones is the first linebacker in NFL history to have 5+ interceptions returned for a touchdown within a player’s first five seasons. pic.twitter.com/JOSKqpwNmi
— Kevin Keneely (@KevinKeneely1) November 30, 2020
Deion Jones is the only player in NFL history with 30+ TFL, 10+ INT and 4+ non-offensive touchdowns within their first five seasons. pic.twitter.com/dFRmwV3Z8p
— Kevin Keneely (@KevinKeneely1) October 31, 2020
While those stats may be a tad bit cherry picked, his PFF grade backs them up. He’s ranked 16th out of 86 qualified linebackers, and his only grade below a 70 is his run defense in which he ranks 30/87. Otherwise, he ranks 7th in pass rush and 13th in coverage. It’s not ideal to have your linebackers blitzing as much as Atlanta does, but it’s working.
With almost no push up front, these guys are getting the job done rushing the passer and covering almost the whole field. There is little to no consistent push up front outside of Jarrett, which forces the linebackers into action. These three are the primary reason that the Falcons are ranking in the top 5 of Defensive EPA under Raheem Morris. Adding a piece at EDGE and a ball-hawking safety in the draft behind them could go a long way, turning this Falcons defense into a consistently respectable force. With Grady Jarrett, AJ Terrell, and these three in the fold, Atlanta has several viable building blocks going forward under a new regime.
Photo: David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire