The Falcons linebacking core revolves around the man in the middle – Deion Jones. The former LSU Tiger was essentially lost for the entire season after suffering a foot injury in week one. His absence provided us a first-hand look at what lied behind him, which was nothing pretty.
De’Vondre Campbell worked his way to becoming a starter in 2016 as a rookie after being selected in the fourth round. He and Jones have been the two staples of the linebacking core since Atlanta’s defense began its turnaround. Campbell doesn’t do many flashy things, but he led the team with 94 combined tackles in Jones’ absence. With all the contracts recently handed out to the Falcons star players, Campbell might be a candidate that is left out when his rookie deal expires at the end of the season. But for one more year, expect him to receive the most snaps behind Jones.
Last year’s sixth-round pick out of Yale, Foyesade Oluokun, took advantage of the injuries to the defense, jumping Duke Riley as the team’s third linebacker. He finished two tackles shy of the team-lead with 92, playing in all 16 games and starting in seven. Oluokun is a physical presence, but his experience as a safety in college led to him grading out even better in pass coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. Now, it’s time to see if he can make another leap like most players do in year two. If that happens, he should steal some snaps from Campbell and continue to make Duke Riley irrelevant.
When Deion Jones was picked in the second round, Duke Riley took over his role at LSU and performed admirably for the Tigers. Then, followed it up with a stellar combine, featuring a 4.58 40-yard dash, which was a tenth of a second faster than Deion Jones’ 40 at the combine. The two came off as mirror images of each other, but there NFL careers could not be more dissimilar.
Jones quickly turned into a Pro-Bowl caliber linebacker, and if he had not gotten injured last year, would be viewed as a top-five player at his position. Riley was known for one thing as a rookie – missing tackles – and it has barely improved, if at all. He received a 44.2 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2018, which was notably worse than the 55.7 grade he posted as a rookie. As long as Jones, Campbell, and Oluokun are healthy – Riley is more of a special teams body than anything.
Kemal Ishmael and Bruce Carter are two other names that saw action at linebacker last year. Vaughn Mcclure of ESPN reported that the Falcons will play Ishmael at safety 75% of the time, providing there are no significant injuries throughout the year. But after J.J. Wilcox tore his ACL, Atlanta is thin on the back-end. Carter is a former second-round pick that started for the Cowboys a few years back. He appeared in eleven games last season and had 21 combined tackles. If all goes well for Atlanta’s linebacker core, Carter will see the field sparingly.
Two other guys that may receive some reps at linebacker are Takk McKinley and Vic Beasley Jr. We wrote about the Falcons potentially transitioning to a 3-4 defense last month, and Dan Quinn has acknowledged they will try it out some. Both McKinley and Beasley have been practicing standing up at times during training camp. They have the speed and athleticism to make the transition, and it makes sense with Atlanta’s defensive personnel. We will see how the Falcons utilize it, but it is something to keep an eye out for once pre-season starts in eight days.
It is unlikely this group is among the best linebacking units in the league. It lacks quality depth, and if Deion Jones goes down again, they are in severe trouble. However, if Jones stays healthy and is the same player from 2017, and Oluokun betters himself – Atlanta will have an extremely reliable group of three guys at their second level. Again, health will be the primary determinant of how the Falcons linebacking core will be viewed at the end of the season.