This is the eighth of a ten-part series reviewing the Falcons season and taking a look at the future outlook, position-by-position. If you missed any other installments, be sure to check them out.
The Falcons find themselves in a fortunate position when it comes to the team’s linebackers. The core of Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun, and Mykal Walker makes up the strongest position group of the 2021 team.
Foye finished the season leading the league with 192 tackles and added on three interceptions, two sacks, one forced fumble, and seven quarterback hits. Debo totaled 137 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, and four quarterback hits. Walker notched 35 tackles, one interception, one fumble recovery, and one quarterback hit.
All things considered, Jones and Oluokun didn’t perform above expectation. The two switched positions last offseason — Foye to MIKE and Debo to WILL — which comes with a learning curve, especially considering the difficulty learning Dean Pees’ system.
Oluokun was better than Jones by all accounts, but he still wasn’t great. On the other hand, Jones was objectively bad — a 16.9% missed tackle rate. Whether his poor performance was caused by the scheme change, position change, or his disinterest in playing for Atlanta, the former LSU Tiger isn’t playing up to the contract extension he signed a couple of years ago.
With Foye set to hit free agency, the Falcons have to decide whether or not to bring him back on a new deal. Given how much money they have tied up in Jones and the positional value of off-ball linebackers, they could be forced to let Oluokun walk. The challenge of replacing him and having another player learn what Pees wants out of his MIKE may not be worth the trouble, but the Falcons might not have a choice. Jones carries a cap hit of $20 million in 2022, plus a dead cap of $24.8 million — per Spotrac — so it is unlikely the Falcons part ways with him.
If Atlanta is forced to go into 2022 with Jones and Walker starting, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. That linebacker duo would still be better than most around the league, even if it is a step back from 2021. Walker is on his rookie deal and is a raw player to this point, but the Falcons need to at least consider the possibility that he could ascend to the level of Foye.
With so many positions to improve, this team isn’t in a place to spend the kind of money Oluokun will garner in free agency. Terry Fontenot has been outspoken about his desire to reward his players, but this could be a situation where he can’t do what he’d like.
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