Falcons could add to thin linebacker corps

UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin (18) celebrates after returning a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter against Austin Peay on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando, Fla. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: Stephen M. Dowell

Credit: Stephen M. Dowell

Fourth of five-part series on the Falcons’ draft needs. 

Today: Linebackers

The Falcons currently have just three linebackers on the roster.

Just three.

The Falcons are set to add to the depth at the position in the NFL draft, which is set for Thursday through Saturday.

Middle linebacker Deion Jones, strongside De’Vondre Campbell and weakside linebacker Duke Riley are the only pure linebackers on the team. Vic Beasley is moving back to defensive end and Kemal Ishmael, who has played some dime linebacker, is listed at safety.

The Falcons have the 26th pick in the first round and have had private workouts with Boise State inside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, Alabama inside linebacker Rashaan Evans and Boston College outside linebacker Harold Landry.

Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds are considered the top two linebackers in the draft.

“There is nothing bad for me to stay about Roquan,” ESPN NFL front office insider Louis Riddick said. “He’s easily a top 10 player. He should be the first linebacker off the board as far as stacked players are concerned.”

There are concerns about Edmunds.

“The only downside to Edmunds, he's 19 years old,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “He doesn't even turn 20 until the week after the draft. I think his upside is higher than those other kids, but I think his floor is lower. I'm not sure what you're getting with him at the end of the day.”

Vander Esch has a medical issue.

“A lot of people really like Vander Esch as a potential top 20 player,” Mayock said. “One of his issues is going to be medical. He wears that neck brace for a reason. He's got a cervical issue, and teams around the league right now are having the conversation about how bad or good is it really and at what level should we draft

him?”

In addition to the 26th overall pick, the Falcons hold picks 58 (second round), 90th (third round), 126th (fourth round), 200 (sixth) and 244 (seventh). Atlanta was awarded the final pick in the draft (No. 256) -- referred to as Mr. Irrelevant -- as a compensatory pick for losing five players in free agency in 2017.

As far as later-round prospects, the Falcons have worked out or interviewed Wisconsin’s Jack Cichy, USC’s Uchenna Nwosu and Yale’s Foye Olukun.

UCF’s Shaquem Griffin, who lost his left hand at the age of four due to a rare birth condition, is the inspirational story of this draft.

He earned the American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year award last season. He made 164 tackles and 33.5 tackles for loss the last two seasons.

Personnel at the NFL scouting combine were extremely impressed when he lifted 225 pounds 20 times.

“Griffin likely isn’t an every-down player in the NFL, but he is absolutely a Sunday player and can be the Jim Abbot of the NFL, projecting best as a special teams demon and dynamic sub-package linebacker,” according to Dan Brugler’s 2018 NFL draft guide.

The Falcons attempted to sign linebacker Pernell McPhee in free agency, but he signed with the Redskins. The team was also linked to veteran free agent Arthur Moats. The Falcons elected not to re-sign veteran linebackers LaRoy Reynolds and Sean Weatherspoon.

The Falcons are hoping that Riley improves in his second year in the NFL.

“It’s time for his leap,” Jones said of Riley. “I feel like he realizes what he has to do. I feel like he’s been doing a great job getting after it. We are going to help him that. I can’t want to see the steps that he takes this year.”

Jones believes the current group of linebackers can help Riley.

“We are all critical of each other in our room,” Jones said. “He knows what we see out of him and what we expect out of him.”

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and personnel staff have received input from the coaching staff.

“Of course, there are nuances to drafting what we believe here, what we may be looking for at 26, at 58, at 90,” Dimitroff said. “We have discussions all the time about that.”

Quinn likes to look at the picks and amassing players to compete for playing time.

“It’s not a one-pick draft,” Quinn said. “It’s a collection of guys and the collection of a draft class. And so sometimes the earlier you pick you expect that guy to have a bigger impact when you’re picking higher, but at the end of it, no, like what’s best for the team.”

The Falcons believe that working through their draft board will led them to the right linebacker to select.

“OK, how does one affect two,” Quinn said. “How does two affect three and all the (way through the draft.) You know, ways to navigate down that trail to get the players that you want, that you think is best for the team.”

The nightmare scenario is for the Falcons to draft a player and later find out that he doesn’t fit their scheme.

The Falcons have found starters late in the draft in Campbell (fourth round) and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (fifth round).

“It’s a lot of fun also to see what the guys can do and not necessarily just the early picks,” Quinn said. “I enjoy looking at the guys who would come in later, too, and this year there’s going to be a number of guys that are really going to add and they’re going to play this year. I think that’s really cool.”

The Falcons signed right guard Brandon Fusco, tight end Logan Paulsen and cornerback Justin Bethel in free agency. Those moves left openings at linebacker. Those moves helped to narrow the Falcons’ draft focus at linebacker and a few other positions.

“We’ve been fortunate, we think to have acquired people that are going to be really important for us in helping our depth at those positions and doesn’t mean we will not draft at that position, but it adjusts where we’re looking on the board,” Dimitroff said. “The difference between pick 26 and 58 and 90 is drastic, of course, so it all plays into it. It becomes a real, I think, a chess game in certain ways.”

LINEBACKER PROSPECTS

A quick look at the linebackers:

List of first-day (first round) picks: Smith, Edmunds, Evans, Vander Esch and Landry.

Second day (second-third rounds): BYU's Fred Warner, Iowa's Josey Jewell and Texas' Malik Jefferson.

Third day (fourth-seventh rounds): Cichy, S.C. State's Darius Leonard, Griffin, Arizona State's Christian Sam and Memphis' Genard Avery.

Georgia: Smith, Lorenzo Carter, Reggie Carter.

SEC: Evans, South Carolina's Skai Moore, Vanderbilt's Oren Burks, Alabama's Shaun Dion Hamilton and Auburn's Tre Williams.

ACC: Edmunds, North Carolina's Andre Smith, Clemson's Dorian O'Daniel, Virginia's Micah Kiser and Florida State's Matthew Thomas.

THE SERIES

ExplorePart 1: Defensive tackles -- Falcons have a gaping hole at defensive tackle 
ExplorePart 2: Fullbacks -- Falcons have a vacancy at fullback, Today
ExplorePart 3: Wide receivers --  Falcons could look to add offensive weapon

Part 4: Linebackers -- Today

Part 5: Offensive line, Wednesday

In Other News