When the new regime took over in Atlanta, the roster wasn’t exactly robust with talent. However, at linebacker, the Falcons were solidified. Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones were set to handle duties on the second level of Dean Pees’ defense. The veterans gave Atlanta some semblance of continuity.
The 2021 campaign wasn’t exactly successful for the unit, though. Oluokun led the league in tackles, but it seemed the former Yale Bulldog was only going to be as good as the defense was as a whole. He wasn’t a difference-maker but was certainly better than his counterpart. Jones mailed in another forgettable season, which continues a downturn in on-field production for the former LSU Tiger.
Fast forward to the present, and things look much different at the linebacker position. Oluokun signed a three-year, $45 million deal with the Jaguars in free agency, while Debo’s future remains unclear. His cap hit in 2022 is higher than any other player at his position and is the largest on the team, but his play hasn’t warranted that kind of compensation. There has been much speculation about trading or cutting Jones, but an offseason surgery has halted any decision-making.
The influx of linebackers the front office brought in this offseason makes Jones’ presence on the roster shaky. The Falcons added Rashaan Evans and Nick Kwiatkoski through free agency and Troy Andersen with the No. 58 overall pick from the 2022 NFL draft. They’ll join Mykal Walker in competing for snaps. So, who will start for Dean Pees?
Given Evans’ history as a starter and playing under Pees in Tennessee, my money would be on the former Titan to not only start but also sport the green dot as the unit’s signal caller. Falcons linebacker coach Frank Bush’s words resonate with that notion too.
“The thing about him that has been impressive about him is that, while he was in this system with Dean Pees in Tennessee, he sits down and takes notes. He never misses anything and he really pays attention. He asks all the right questions. He prides himself on making it fresh and learning something new every time.”
Walker shouldn’t be forgotten, though. Despite never being a full-time starter, he is showcasing the willingness and ability to earn that full-time role, which Bush reiterated.
“Mykal has had a really good spring. He came back in tremendous shape. There’s a certain level of maturity that has shown up in the building this year. He physically looks the part, and he’s embracing the role of trying to be the guy who can be on the field all the time. He has done a great job and has had a really good spring. We have high expectations for him and, so far, he has lived up to them.”
Andersen is the new kid on the block for the Falcons, and he’s an athletic marvel. You won’t find many players in the NFL with more impressive workout numbers; however, as we saw last year with Richie Grant, if you can’t mentally keep up, you won’t see the field.
“The key right now is to help him get to the athlete he is. He’s in learning mode right now. He’s trying to figure this thing out. We like him as a linebacker and that’s what he was as he finished up at Montana State, he does not know our language. We have to school him up on how we do things. The faster he learns that, the faster he’ll be himself on the field. He’s trending up. He’s doing the right things. I can only say good things about him. He’s humble. He’s there to learn every day and never takes anything for granted. He’s starting to show his skill set the more he learns…
We’re looking to put the best guys on the field. If he’s one of the best guys in our room, he’ll be out there. But it’s a process. We don’t want to give him the MVP trophy and we don’t want to discard him just yet. It’s process. I like where he is in the process. He’s a humble kid. He’s extremely intelligent. He’ll get used to our system. We just have to stick with the process. I’m happy with him and where he’s at.”
I would think it’s safe to assume Evans will be wearing the green dot, but your guess is as good as mine as to who will start next to him. If Jones is on the roster Week 1, it’ll likely be him. Walker also could make a case to be a full-time starter. However, if Andersen can learn quickly enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if he pushes for reps.
Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire
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