Editor’s note: This is the second of an eight-part position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster before they report for training camp. The rookies report July 19 and the veterans July 26.
FLOWERY BRANCH – Inside linebacker Deion Jones, a mainstay on the Falcons’ defense over the past six seasons, has to rebound from shoulder surgery, while the team hopes to get some pass rush out of the outside linebackers.
Jones is set to report for training camp later this month and will need to win a battle to open the 2022 season as a starter at home Sept. 11 against the Saints.
“We’ll see where it goes with Deion,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He got something (a shoulder) cleaned up in the offseason. … He should be ready to go by camp.”
The Falcons appear set to revamp the inside linebacker position, while adding three new outside linebackers in free agency and the draft.
Foye Oluokun, who led the NFL in tackles with 192 last season, signed with Jacksonville in free agency.
In addition to Jones and Mykal Walker, the Falcons signed veterans Rashaan Evans and Nick Kwiatkoski in free agency and drafted Troy Andersen in the second round. Dorian Etheridge and Nathan Landman round out the inside linebacker group.
The Falcons signed Lorenzo Carter in free agency and drafted Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone to buttress the outside linebacker position.
Evans and Walker worked inside and Carter and Ade Ogundeji outside with the first-team defense during the open OTA and minicamp practices.
“That (group) is going to be competitive,” Smith said. “Everybody is going to have to earn a spot. Like Mykal Walker, he played well for us at (weakside) linebacker in spots. Mykal was guy that developed. He kind of found a home there. It’s going to be a tough (group).”
Evans comes over from Tennessee and has his best season (2019) while playing for defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
“Rashaad Evans is extremely motivated,” Smith said. “He wants a shot to prove himself. He was a first-round pick at Tennessee. Had some productive years. Whatever happened, happened.”
The Falcons don’t plan to rush Andersen onto the field.
“We’ll bring him along at the right pace,” Smith said. “But there is real competition. It’s not, somebody is going to walk in there and be anointed, like I’ve got it.”
But Jones, who had 137 tackles last season, has the highest salary-cap number on the team, at $20 million for the 2022 season. But his spot in the lineup is not guaranteed.
“All we’re trying to do here is get the right guys,” Smith said. “It’s competitive. And that’s the nature of the NFL. And so that (group), however, it shakes out. I’ve said this many times and it’s no secret there, there is open competition.”
Walker played 193 defensive snaps (17%) last season and 385 defensive snaps (36%) as a rookie.
“I was ready last year,” Walker said when asked if he’s ready to start. “I’ve just been waiting for my opportunity.”
Walker is not backing down from the competition at the position.
“Every day I’m just going to go out there and compete,” Walker said.
Evans, who played at Alabama, was taken 22nd overall in the 2018 draft. After 50 starts over 59 games, the Titans didn’t pick up his fifth-year option.
“He’s a sharp guy,” inside linebackers coach Frank Bush said. “He’s confident. The thing about it is, and what’s been impressive is, that he was in the system with Dean as well. He sits in the meetings and takes great notes. He never misses anything.”
Kwiatkoski, who was with the Raiders last season, has started 34 games in his career.
Andersen, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds, played quarterback and running back at Montana State before landing at linebacker.
“You have to find the things that will help him get to the athlete,” Bush said. “Right now, he’s in a learning mode. He’s trying to figure the thing out. ... He does not know our language. We’ve got to teach him, school him up on how we do things.
“The faster he learns stuff, the faster you’ll see the player on the field.”
Carter, who played at Norcross High and Georgia, played with the Giants for the past four seasons. He has 14.5 career sacks.
“It’s good to have the veteran in the group that has been down some of these roads before,” outside linebacker coach Ted Monachino said. “Football is really easy for him.”
The Falcons are hoping that Ogundeji, who played 527 defensive snaps (48%) as a rookie, can increase his productivity. He had 33 tackles and a sack.
“He probably overachieved last year,” Monachino said. “And in that time, you know, through 17 games, he was able to figure out the things he needed to work on to be better. ... We expect him to take a major step forward.”
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.