Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis: The linebackers

Falcons linebacker Dante Fowler (56) shares a laugh with teammates during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Falcons linebacker Dante Fowler (56) shares a laugh with teammates during team practice at minicamp Wednesday, June 10, 2021, in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Editor’s note: This is the seventh of an eight-part, position-by-position series analyzing the Falcons’ roster before they report for training camp on Tuesday.

The Falcons appear to be strong at inside linebacker, while the outside linebackers will enter this week’s training camp with a little something to prove.

Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun head the group of inside linebackers with promising second-year player Mykal Walker also in the fold. At outside linebacker, Dante Fowler, the former No. 3 overall pick preparing for his second season with the Falcons, and Jacob Tuitoi-Mariner are the top names in a group looking to earn some respect - and provide pressure on the edge - in 2021.

“(The Falcons) are pretty well set with Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun,” Thomas Bassinger, who wrote the essay on the Falcons in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2021, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. “I think (they) are pretty well set at inside linebacker, but edge rushers is a major area of concern. Dante Fowler was supposed to help with that last season and was a disappointment.”

Fowler, who was selected third overall by Jacksonville in 2015, is on his third team after being traded by the Jaguars to the Los Angeles Rams during the 2018 season. Playing on a line that featured defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Fowler had 11.5 sacks in 2019 as the Rams won the NFC Championship and played in Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta.

The Falcons signed Fowler to a three-year, $45 million contract in 2020 - a season in which he only had three sacks - and asked him to take an incentive-laden contract that will pay him by the sack in 2021.

“The most I remember at Dante is when he came out of college, he was the prototype, the No. 1 guy in that draft that year,” outside linebacker coach Ted Monachino said. “When I looked at him, I knew that the league was strange in certain ways, I hoped that I could coach him right away, but at some point in his career, I’d hoped that and he and I crossed paths.”

In previous NFL coaching stops, Monachino has coached some of the game’s top pass rushers in Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Robert Mathis and Khalil Mack.

“I’m excited to get him going,” Monachino said.

Tuioti-Mariner played in all 16 games last season and was named the NFC defensive player of the week after the Week 12 win over the Raiders. He finished with 31 tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and five quarterback hits. The former undrafted defensive end from UCLA played 374 snaps (35%) last season.

The Falcons also have rookie Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Shareef Miller, Kobe Jones and George Obinna at outside linebacker and signed Emmanuel Ellerbee on Monday.

“Fortunately for them, they were able to bring in Dean Pees, who is up to the task,” Bassinger said. “It’s not maybe the exact same situation that he had in Tennessee, but there are some similarities there. They didn’t have a dominate pass rush.”

Pees was the Titans defensive coordinator in 2018 and 2019 and they went 9-7 each season. In 2019, the Titans reached the AFC championship game and were defeated by the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City.

“They are going to have to be creative,” said Bassinger, who formerly covered the Buccaneers. “He’s said as much. He’s going to bring anyone from anywhere. I’m excited to see that. I think they have the right guy for the job.”

The Tennessee defense of 2018 finished in the top-half of the league in most key categories. They gave up 333.4 yards per game (eighth), 116.4 rushing (18th), 216.9 passing (sixth) and 18.9 points per game (third).

The pass rush was led by defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who had seven sacks. Right inside linebacker Javon Brown was second with six sacks. Ten other players also had sacks as the Titans finished with 39 sacks and had 7.32 sacks per pass attempt, which ranked tied for 15th.

Falcons linebackers Foyesade Oluokun (left) and Deion Jones work together during organize team activities (OTAs) Tuesday, May 25, 2021, at the team training facility in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

In 2019, Pees’ unit ranked 21st overall in yards allowed (359.5 per game, but increased their sack output to 43, led by right outside linebacker Harold Landry’s nine sacks. Eleven other players also had sacks. The Titans had 7.19 sacks per pass attempt, which ranked 17th in the league.

“I think it will be a little bit easier to scheme through their weaknesses on offense and tougher to do that on defense,” Bassinger said. “But the thing about Dean Pees is that he’s never coached a bad defense. I think that they’ll end up putting a respectable unit out there.”

Jones, who was named to the Pro Bowl in 2017, led the team in sacks with 4.5 and was second in tackles with 106.

Oluokun stepped into the starting lineup last season was solid. He had 62 tackles and his four forced fumbles were tied for the third-most in the NFL.

Walker played in all 16 games and made six starts. He finished with 45 tackle while playing 385 defensive snaps (35%) and 189 special-teams snaps (42%).

Oluokun blitzed a team-leading 82 times last season. Jones blitzed 61 times. He was followed by Walker (34) and Fowler (32).

Atlanta Falcons’ 90-man roster analysis:

Part 1: Quarterbacks

Part 2: Running Backs

Part 3: Offensive line

Part 4: Special Teams

Part 5: Wide receivers/Tight ends

Part 6: Defensive line

Part 7: Linebackers

Part 8: Secondary

Credit: AJC

THE AJC’S PROJECTED DEPTH CHART

OFFENSE

WR 18 Calvin Ridley, 83 Tajae Sharpe, 88 Frank Darby, 13 Christian Blake, 86 Antonio Nunn

WR 14 Russell Gage, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus, 12 Chris Rowland, 82 Austin Trammell, 16 Jeff Badet

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 74 William Sweet, 72 Willie Beavers

LG 68 Josh Andrews, 77 Jalen Mayfield, 66 Willie Wright, 62 Bryce Hargrove

C 61 Matt Hennessy, 67 Drew Dalman, 65 Joe Sculthorpe

RG 63 Chris Lindstrom, 64 Ryan Neuzil, 75 Kion Smith, 71 Sam Jones

RT 76 Kaleb McGary, 73 Matt Gono, 77 Jalen Mayfield, Jason Spriggs

TE 8 Kyle Pitts, 81 Hayden Hurst, 85 Lee Smith, 87 Jaeden Graham, 46 Parker Hesse, 80 Ryan Becker, 89 John Raine

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 5 AJ McCarron, 15 Feleipe Franks

HB 28 Mike Davis, 30 Qadree Ollison, 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 25 Javian Hawkins, 42 Caleb Huntley

FB 40 Keith Smith

DEFENSE

DL 90 Marlon Davidson, 55 Steven Means, 95 Ta’Quon Graham, 79 Chris Slayton

DL 97 Grady Jarrett, 93 Zac Dawe, 94 Deadrin Senat, 98 John Atkins

DL 96 Tyeler Davison, 50 John Cominsky, 99 Jonathan Bullard, 69 Olive Sagapolu

OLB 56 Dante Fowler, 92 Adetokunbo Ogundeji, 42 Shareef Miller, Emmanuel Ellerbee

ILB 45 Deion Jones, 51 Brandon Copeland, 53 Erroll Thompson

ILB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 43 Mykal Walker, 48 Dorian Etheridge

OLB 91 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 49 Kobe Jones, 59 George Obinna

RCB 22 Fabian Moreau, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 29 Chris Williamson

LCB 24 A.J. Terrell, 33 Tyler Hall, 34 Darren Hall, 38 Marcus Murphy, 41 J.R. Pace

NCB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 25 Delrick Abrams, 35 Avery Williams

FS 23 Erik Harris, 27 Richie Grant, 37 Dwayne Johnson

SS 21 Duron Harmon, 32 Jaylinn Hawkins, 39 T.J. Green, 38 Marcus Murphy

SPECIALISTS

K 7 Younghoe Koo

P 4 Sterling Hofrichter, 9 Dom Maggio

LS 47 Josh Harris

KO 7 Younghoe Koo

KR 84 Cordarrelle Patterson, 12 Chris Rowland, 35 Avery Williams

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