Countdown to camp: Deion Jones needs to take leadership mantel

Image of Falcons linebacker Deion Jones in new uniform.
Image of Falcons linebacker Deion Jones in new uniform.

Credit: Courtesy of the Falcons

Credit: Courtesy of the Falcons

Editor’s note: Leading to the start of NFL training camp, we’ll take a look at the Falcons. Rookies reported Tuesday. QBs and injured veterans reported Thursday and the rest of the veterans July 28. Today: Linebackers.

Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones is set to enter his fifth season in the NFL and is on the verge of stardom.

He’s turned in three seasons with 100 tackles or more and went to the Pro Bowl after his second season in the league.

“Deion is a guy that I see has the potential to be the best middle linebacker in the NFL,” Falcons linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “I really do.”

Jones can stop the run and is great in pass coverage. He has nine career interceptions. The Falcons need him to step up and run the defense from his post.

“In this game that we play today, it’s all about matchups and athleticism, space and a lot of grass,” Ulbrich said. “He’s custom-made for that because he’s got so much speed and athleticism.”

Jones fits the new prototype of smaller and faster linebackers. He’s listed at 227 pounds at position that used to be manned by 250-pounders.

With teams using more spread formations and throwing more passes to tight ends and running backs, the middle linebacker has to cover more ground.

“That’s just the way the game is changing,” Jones said. “(There are) a lot of spread offenses and a lot of guys in space (who) are really good in space. You could say (Carolina running back Christian) McCaffrey and you could name a dozen guys.

“That transition is to keep up with the offenses and be able to go match for match (with) people so linebacker-on-running back won’t be a mismatch.”

The Falcons believe there Jones has room for improvement.

“At the same time there are parts of his game that he’d acknowledge that he can take to the next level,” Ulbrich said. “I’m not going to say that he has huge glaring weaknesses because I don’t think that’s the case, but I think that there is another place he can go in areas of his game that aren’t his strengths.”

The Falcons believe Jones is nearing a move into the elite group of players in the NFL.

“As a team, if we get that much more out of him and he goes to that space that is really borderline elite now, we are only such much better because of it,” Ulbrich said. “It will be exciting to see what he brings to the table this year.”

In addition to Jones stepping forward, the Falcons must replace the versatile De’Vondre Campbell. After four years as a starter, the former fourth-round pick was allowed to hit the open market. He signed with Arizona in free agency.

The Falcons believe they have his replacement in Foyesade Oluokun, a former Yale standout who’s set to enter his third season in the NFL.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn, based in part on Oluokun’s play in 2018 and 2019, is confident that he can replace Campbell, who was the team’s leading tackler in each of the past two seasons.

Jones also is a staunch supporter of Oluokun.

“I really can’t wait to see him come out and show the world what he’s been working on,” Jones said. “He’s been grinding."

In 2018, Jones went down with broken foot in the season opener. Over the course of the 2018 season, Oluokun moved ahead of Duke Riley, who opened the season as the starting weakside linebacker.

In 2019, with Jones healthy, it took awhile for the Falcons to find a way to get Oluokun on the field. Riley was traded mid-season to the Eagles for safety Johnathan Cyprien.

Oluokun played in all 16 games and made three starts last season. He started seven games in 2018.

“He knows a lot of ball,” Jones said. “It’s our job as his teammates to bring all of that knowledge out of him. I think he’s going to do a good job.”

Oluokun, who’s 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, continues the trend of smallish linebackers with speed and power.

The Falcons added linebackers LaRoy Reynolds and Edmond Robinson in free agency and drafted linebacker Mykal Walker in the fourth round.

Reynolds, 29, has played in 99 NFL games and made seven starts. The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder played with the Eagles in 2018 and the Bengals last season.

Reynolds, who played at Virginia, broke into the league with the Jaguars in 2013 as an undrafted free agent. He also has played for the Bears.

He had his best season in 2016 during the Falcons’ march to Super Bowl LI. He had a career-high 30 tackles and made three starts. He played one play from scrimmage and 23 on special teams in the Super Bowl.

Robinson had stints with the Vikings (2015-16), Jets (2017) and Cardinals (2017). The former standout at Newberry was out of the NFL in 2018.

He played for the Houston Roughnecks of the XFL before the league suspended play because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Falcons signed the 6-foot-3 and 244 pounder to a one-year deal. Robinson has played in 22 NFL games and made one start.

Walker, who’s 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, played middle linebacker, outside linebacker and defensive end in 2019, when he finished with 96 tackles at Fresno State.

“In our minds, we have one of the best linebacker coaches in the league in Jeff Ulbrich,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “Dan has a really good understanding of what he expects from this linebacker group.”

Linebackers depth chart

SLB 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 36 Deone Bucannon, Ray Wilborn

MLB 45 Deion Jones, 43 Mykal Walker, 46 Edmond Robinson

WLB 59 LaRoy Reynolds, 52 Ahmad Thomas, Jordan Williams

COUNTDOWN TO TRAINING CAMP 2020

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Countdown to Camp: Dan Quinn’s revamped coaching staff for 2020

Countdown to Camp: Special teams need major overhaul

Countdown to Camp: Terrell, Neal are major question marks in Falcons secondary

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