Falcons linebackers offered stability on struggling defense

Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) picks up an onside kick against the Seattle Seahawks during the second half Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) picks up an onside kick against the Seattle Seahawks during the second half Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series looking at Falcons position groups going into the offseason.

Foye Oluokun has given himself an opportunity to receive a large payday if he puts in a stellar 2021 season. After spending his first two seasons with the Falcons as a rotational linebacker, Oluokun became a starter and was one of the more consistent presences on defense.

In an otherwise disappointing season that resulted in a 4-12 record, Oluokun was a bright spot individually. Looking ahead, Oluokun hopes to build on the success he saw in 2020.

“I always knew I was a football player, first and foremost. If you put me out there, I’m going to find a way to play well,” Oluokun said. “Obviously there were some games I feel like I could have done better. Going into next year, consistency in every game is what I want to improve on. You’re going to have good games and games that aren’t as good. But if the games that aren’t as good are better than other people’s games, you’re going to be a great player. That’s where I want to improve on and see other techniques I need to improve.”

Although the Falcons’ defense struggled, especially against the pass, the linebackers rarely were a liability on the field. While the defense will need to be revamped in some fashion this offseason, here’s an early look at a linebacking group that won’t require much tweaking.

Contracts expiring: The only linebackers with contracts set to expire are LaRoy Reynolds and Edmond Robinson, two rotational players who signed one-year contracts last offseason. Both got the occasional defensive snap but mostly played on special teams. Reynolds, in particular, offers a fiery vocal presence in the locker room, which all teams can use.

Although former coach Dan Quinn was a fan of both players when evaluating them, the incoming staff may decide to look elsewhere when rounding out the position group.

Las Vegas Raiders bench looks on as Falcons linebacker Deion Jones intercepts a Derek Carr pass and returns it for a touchdown during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Falcons beat the Raiders 43-6.   (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Las Vegas Raiders bench looks on as Falcons linebacker Deion Jones intercepts a Derek Carr pass and returns it for a touchdown during the third quarter Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Falcons beat the Raiders 43-6. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Still under contract: The mainstays who play the most will be back with the Falcons in 2021. Deion Jones signed a four-year contract worth $57 million before the 2019 season and will have two years left to play. Although he will account for a $12.63 million cap in 2021, he grew into a more versatile linebacker this past season and that should make the new coaching staff happy.

A lot of what allowed Jones, who had a team-leading 4.5 sacks, to blitz and play in different spots was Oluokun’s growth. Oluokun led the Falcons in tackles with 116 while recording three sacks of his own. Oluokun and Jones also had two interceptions each.

Mykal Walker received a good amount of playing time as a rookie, totaling 40 tackles and two quarterback hits. With Jones and Oluokun returning, Walker should continue to see spot time while carving out a valuable special teams role.

2020 performance: All things considered, the linebackers performed fairly well. The defense as a whole clearly didn’t get the job done when you look at how poor the pass defense was -- last in the NFL by allowing 293.6 yards per game. The run defense ranked sixth in the NFL by keeping teams to 104.8 rushing yards per game and was tied for 14th in allowing 4.4 yards per carry.

With the lack of a pass rush coming from the Falcons’ defensive line, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich utilized his linebackers as pass rushers a bit more than in previous years, which highlighted the athletic ability of both Jones and Oluokun.

Offseason outlook: With Oluokun entering the final year of his rookie contract, a potential extension could become a conversation. But considering it will be a new staff coming into a situation with legitimate salary-cap concerns, no one knows exactly what that means for any player on the roster. More than likely, Oluokun will be in a prove-it situation where his practice and play must convince the next regime that he is worthy of a second contract with the franchise.

2021 draft options: If the new staff decides against a quarterback or offensive lineman at the No. 4 spot, the top linebacker prospect in this year’s draft is Penn State’s Micah Parsons. By selecting Parsons that early, it would signal the Falcons plan to move on from either Jones or Oluokun after 2021. Other potential second-day options at linebacker could include Missouri’s Nick Bolton, Tulsa’s Zaven Collins and Alabama’s Dylan Moses.

ExploreNext staff will have retooling to do in Falcons’ secondary

Conclusion: The Falcons’ defense has plenty of issues to sort out. The secondary could potentially have two sizable voids to fill at safety if it loses Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee to free agency. In what seems like a never-ending process, the Falcons still must figure out how they can best apply pressure from the edge rushers.

But at linebacker, at least for the short term, the Falcons don’t have any major worries. In a league where the nickel package is more often used than the base defense, the Falcons have two good linebackers in Jones and Oluokun. Walker adds good depth, leaving the rotational backups as the only places to address.

Previous stories in this series

Next staff will have some retooling to do in secondary

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