This is the eighth installment of a comprehensive positional breakdown for the Falcons following April’s draft. So far, I’ve broken down the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive and defensive linemen, and EDGEs. Moving on to the strongest position group of the defensive side of the ball… the linebackers. The below quote is from an article two summers ago describing the Titans’ “switching” defense of Dean Pees, which essentially describes the ultra-athletic group in Atlanta.
When you get to the linebackers, the story is very similar. The Titans feature a set of backers ranging from 5’-11” to 6’-2” and between 225 and 233 pounds. It’s a group that’s built on speed and athleticism over size and power. Jayon Brown is among the game’s best coverage linebackers and makes the Titans defense incredibly flexible when he’s in the game. Jayon Brown is one of several versatile defenders the Titans have added in recent seasons.
Rashaan Evans, the Titans 2018 first round pick, brings a level of flexibility as well. He can be a run-thumping inside linebacker on one play and then an edge rusher the next. Evans is unique as a 232-pound linebacker who plays with the power of a much larger player.
The Falcons currently have six rostered inside linebackers, but I would expect Pees to only require four to start the season.
Debo is one of the most athletic linebackers in football, but he didn’t play up to expectations in 2019 or the start of 2020. Once Dan Quinn had been fired, the former LSU Tiger reverted to what made him all that money in the first place. He excels in coverage, which is especially important for the Falcons for two reasons. First, Pees becomes a more dangerous coordinator if he can reliably call his linebackers into coverage. Second, the NFC South is littered with non-receiver threats in the passing game — Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, Giovanni Bernard, Rob Gronkowski, and OJ Howard.
Once Raheem Morris became interim head coach, and Jeff Ulbrich was named defensive coordinator, there was a clear difference in Jones’s production. Before Quinn was fired (weeks 1-5), Jones recorded 37 total tackles, 0.5 sacks, two TFL, and one QB hit. After Morris took over (weeks 6-17), Jones saw an uptick in every statistic — 69 total tackles, 4.0 sacks, seven TFL, nine QB hits, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), six passes defended, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.
Dean Pees will surely use Jones similarly as Todd Bowles uses Devin White as a blitzer, but Pees is much more deceptive as a play designer, and his system could catapult Jones back to the Pro Bowl. Falcons linebackers coach Frank Bush knows how experienced he is as a blitzer and will lean on him for their multiple defense.
Foye was one of the few bright spots of the 2020 campaign after spending the first couple of seasons in the league as a rotational player; he had a career year in his third season — a career-high 14 starts, two interceptions, three sacks, and four forced fumbles. He was arguably the best defender on the team last year as he led the Falcons in tackles. Due to his incredible athleticism after playing safety in college, he showed the kind of effect he can have when given the opportunity. Foye isn’t as great coming on a blitz as his counterpart, but he was superior to Debo in coverage last year. The two will form a formidable duo for Dean Pees and enable the defensive signal-caller great schematic flexibility. The only disappointing thing is he’s in a contract year, and more than likely, this will be the last year we see the former Yale Bulldog in Falcons’ threads.
Walker shined his rookie year and was named to the PFF All-Rookie team after grading out as the second-best rookie defender — behind only Chase Young. He obviously didn’t play as many snaps as Young, but with the likes of Debo and Foye, 36% of defensive snaps is reasonable. He was consistently ranked as a very good player by PFF in his limited snaps, and he managed to make a splash periodically throughout the season. He has likely earned a bigger role in the future and will likely be the primary reserve under Pees. He is a player with good athleticism, and if his 2020 season is any indicator, he could be a valuable player on this defense in 2021 and beyond if the team lets Oluokun walk next offseason.
Foye was drafted out of Yale as a safety, and the switch to inside linebacker couldn’t be going any better; Walker was similarly positionless in college too, playing inside and outside linebacker at Fresno State and even showed well at defensive end too. The former Bulldog has experience playing in a system with multiple fronts — exactly what Dean Pees wants to do.
Copeland played 2020 in New England under Bill Belichick but has familiarity with linebackers coach Frank Bush who spent the 2019-20 seasons serving as the Jets’ linebackers coach. During those two seasons under him, Copeland recorded a career-high 6.5 sacks. In five seasons, Copeland has tallied 119 tackles, 19 QB hits, and seven sacks. He’s a quality player who can provide depth at multiple positions — off-ball and outside linebacker.
Etheridge was a four-year starter and team captain in college at Louisville. Coaches praised his intelligence and leadership there; he possesses the exact character Fontenot vowed to bring in. He’s a reliable tackler in the open field and a solid box defender, but he projects a two-down linebacker at best — more likely, though, a special teamer.
The former Mississippi State Bulldog was once expected to commit to Alabama, but he was very productive in Starkville — posting 312 tackles, 23 tackles for a loss, ten sacks, three interceptions, and two forced fumbles. He’s very one-dimensional as a thumper MIKE. He could be stashed on the practice squad if he shows enough on the third phase — special teams.
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