This is the second of a 10-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster after their offseason program.
When the Falcons report for training camp on July 26, the will be set at two linebacker spots and will count on second-year player Duke Riley to step up at the weakside linebacker position.
Deion Jones, coming of his first of what should be many trips to the Pro Bowl, returns at middle linebacker and the hard-changing DeVondre Campbell is set at strongside linebacker.
The Falcons elected not to re-sign Sean Weatherspoon and LaRoy Reynolds from last season. Kemal Ishmael, a former safety, is the only other experienced linebacker on the roster.
Riley, who was taken in the third round of the 2017 draft, opened the season as the starting weakside linebacker last season. He missed too many tackles and ended the season as a reserve and special-teams player.
“He’s a guy that, the honest truth, he knows this and I know this, everyone in his circle knows this, he didn’t fulfill his expectations as far as his play was concerned,” linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “We both took a very honest look at his game. Early in the offseason, very, very early in the offseason.”
Riley can still become the player the Falcons envisioned when they selected him out of LSU with the 75th overall pick.
“We made some goals and he’s absolutely gone for it,” Ulbrich said. “Who’s to say if he becomes a special player, that’s up to him and the opportunity that he has. I promise you this, he’s doing everything humanly possible to be better than he was last year.”
Riley started six games and played in 12 games. He had 24 tackles and six tackles on special teams, which was third on the team.
The Falcons believe that Jones will continue to blossom.
“It’s been two seasons with long playoffs runs, so there’s been a lot of games played by him,” Ulbrich said.
Jones and Campbell were selected in the 2016 draft, in the second and fourth rounds respectively.
“They’ve learned a lot and they’ve matured a lot,” Ulbrich said. “What is exciting about the both of them is that they are still like their worst critics (while) going for it every day. Competing to be the best in the game. They have a tremendous amount of humility and it’s going to be really cool just to see how they progress because they are no way near tapped out.”
Jones led the defense with 138 tackles last season and was spectacular in pass coverage. He led the team with three interceptions and was third on the team with nine pass breakups.
“He’s fulfilled the vision that I think most the people in this organization had for him, but (after) saying that, he’s no way near being a finished product,” Ulbrich said. “He’s got work to do. He knows it and he’s willing to do it.”
The Falcons were still buzzing about Jones’ interception in the end zone against the Saints. Jones leaped high to intercept a Drew Brees pass to preserve the 20-17 victory on Dec. 7, 2017.
“There is some stuff that he does in coverage that is freaky and uncommon, that’s best-in-the-league type stuff, but there is also stuff from a fundamental standpoint against the run that needs to improve on,” Ulbrich said. “He understands that, he knows that and is working on it every day.”
Jones’ first trip to the Pro Bowl was eventful.
“That was a tremendous help in creating a strong vision of what it could look like, what I can look like by being around guys that are doing it at the highest level,” Ulbrich said. “He got a chance to be around Derrick Brooks. He got a chance to be around Thomas Davis. Some guys that have done and are still doing it at the highest level possible. Yeah, he soaked them up and took all that he could from them. It’s exciting for him to implement those things in to his game now.”
Jones and Campbell played the linebacker spot in the Falcons’ nickel. The team played nearly 70 percent of nickel defense last season.
“In our zone stuff they play very similar roles,” Ulbrich said. “They are into the hooks and have to be great open field tacklers. They’ve got to carry receivers all the time on vertical routes, so they’ve got to be able to run. But last year, we transitioned into a little bit more man.
“So, in that way, they are not interchangeable. In that way, DeVondre becomes a very good matchup on a tight end because of his length. Deion becomes a very good matchup on running backs because of his elite quickness.”
The play of the linebackers helps the safety.
“I don’t think we…the vision was never to create a (middle linebacker) and a (weakside linebacker) in that way, but it’s evolved to that and it’s become a really cool thing.
“It allows you a lot of flexibility with what you can do. It allows really a guy like (strong safety) Keanu (Neal) to be more of that free robber, roamer, extra guy so that he can do what he does and we know what that is. “
The Falcons drafted rookie Foye Oloukun, out of Yale in the sixth round.
“He’s looking good,” Ulbrich said. “He’s got all of the stuff that you can’t coach. He’s fast. He’s explosive. He’s got tremendous length. It will be fun. Every day is like a new day for him.
“He’s running a lot. He’s soaking it all up. He’s tremendously smart and bright. He doesn’t repeat mistakes and he’s very eager. It will be fun to see where he can go.”
Part 1: Defensive Line
Coming Wednesday: Cornerbacks
Here’s a look at the projected depth chart heading into training camp:
WR 11 Julio Jones, 18, Calvin Ridley, 14 Justin Hardy, 13 Reggie Davis, 86 Lamar Jordan, 16 Taj Williams
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 68 Austin Pasztor, 76 Daniel Brunskill
LG 67 Andy Levitre, 63 Ben Garland, 64 Sean Harlow, 75 Jamil Douglas
C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland, 61 J.C. Hassenauer
RG 65 Brandon Fusco, 71 Wes Schweitzer, 62 Salesi Uhatafe
RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 74 Ty Sambrailo, 77 Matt Gono
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 89 Alex Gray, 80 Troy Mangen, 87 Jaeden Graham
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 17 Marvin Hall, 83 Russell Gage, 15 Christian Blake, 19 Dontez Byrd, 7 Devin Gray
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 9 Grayson Garrett, 6 Kurt Benkert
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 25 Ito Smith, 41 Terrence Magee, 32 Justin Crawford, 35 Malik Williams
FB 40 Daniel Marx, 43 Luke McNitt, 30 Ricky Ortiz
DE 98 Takk McKinley, 50 Brooks Reed, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 96 Mackendy Cheridor
DT 99 Terrell McClain, 94 Deadrin Senat, 93 Garrison Smith,
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford, 92 Justin Zimmer, 99 Jon Cunningham
DE 44 Vic Beasley, 90 Derrick Shelby, 55 J’Terius Jones
WLB 42 Duke Riley, 54 Foyesade Oluokun
MLB 45 Deion Jones, 52 Emmanuel Ellerbe, 53 Emmanuel Smith
SLB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 56 Anthony Winbush, 49 Richard Jarvis
CB 23 Robert Alford, 20 Isaiah Oliver, 28 Justin Bethel, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 39 Deante Burton
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 35 Leon McFadden, 43 Chris Lammons
NB 34 Brian Poole, 27 Damontae Kazee, 42 Tyson Graham, 30 Joseph Putu
FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Damontae Kazee, 38 Marcelis Branch, 41 Jason Hall
SS 22 Keanu Neal, Ron Parker, 35 Secdrick Cooper
K 3 Matt Bryant, 1 David Marvin
KO 5 Matt Bosher
P 5 Matt Bosher
KR 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Marvin Hall, 30 Ito Smith
PR 14 Justin Hardy, 16 Reggie Davis
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 5 Matt Bosher