Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a 10-part position-by-position breakdown of the Falcons’ roster heading into training camp. Today: The Linebackers.
One of the unintended consequences of losing linebacker Deion Jones last season was the rapid development of rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun.
The sixth-round pick from Yale ended up starting seven games and played in all 16 games. He finished second on the team in tackles with 91 and will enter training camp as the starter at weakside linebacker.
Veterans are scheduled to report July 21, one day before the first training-camp practice July 22. Rookies are scheduled to report July 18.
The Falcons will have eight practices open to the public, including one at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and will play the Broncos in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 1 in Canton, Ohio.
“He is the (weakside starter) going into camp,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “With Deion out, we put him a lot of (middle) linebacker, which we didn’t do last year. We did that and his practice habits and leadership kept ramping up. We are excited about where we are headed with Foye.”
Duke Riley opened the past two seasons as the starting weakside linebacker, but was not able to hold down the spot.
“I can’t take any credit for Foye,” linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “He’s a self-driven, self-starter. He’s a rare worker.”
Riley was selected in the third round of the 2017 draft, but Oluokun has leaped over him.
“He doesn’t repeat mistakes,” Ulbrich said. “As long as he gets turns in practice and he gets to see it, it is absorbed. It is in there. It’s done, He’s got it.
“We are all going to make physical mistakes at times, but mental mistakes, he’s not going to repeat them. So his game just continues to grow and evolve. Once he’s got it, he’s got it. Give me the next layer coach.”
Ulbrich is expecting continued growth from Oluokun.
“Some of these guys can process 50 percent of the information and take it on the field,” Ulbrich said. “He’s processing 100 percent out there. And has the ability to apply it. He has a chance to be good just because of that.”
In addition to Oluokun, Jones (middle) and DeVondre Campbell (strongside) are the projected starting linebackers.
Jones, who came back from a broken foot last season, spent the offseason rehabbing.
“They are working hard,” Ulbrich said. “I’m fortunate that I’ve got such a humble, hard-working, dedicated group that go for it every day. I’m really fortunate in that way.”
The Falcons hope that Jones returns to his ball-hawking ways.
“He’s knows that his game is not perfect,” Ulbrich said. “We all recognize that he’s got some exceptional stuff within his game, but we are continuing to work on his size, strength and run defense.”
Jones believes he can continue to climb in the league.
“The speed is still there,” Jones said. “I feel good. It’s just a matter of getting back out there with my boys.”
Jones believes he can regain his 2017 Pro Bowl form.
“I’m working on traction and stuff like that,” Jones said. “Other stuff that I usually would have the offseason to work on. I’m just building a different beast.”
With Jones down last season, Campbell took on more of a leadership role. He lead the team with 94 tackles.
“He does the dirty work,” Ulbrich said. “He does the stuff that nobody talks about. He eliminates tight ends from games, but nobody wants to talk about that.”
Campbell appeared to be on his way to a big season before the injuries weakened the overall unit.
“We put him on (Eagles tight end) Zach Ertz by himself for an entire game against Philly (in the season opener),” Ulbrich said. “The same year that Zach Ertz sets the tight end record for receptions and Zach does not catch a ball on him. He breaks two balls up. He just eliminates guys from games.”
The Falcons want Campbell, who’s set to enter his fourth season, to continue to improve.
“Solid run defender,” Ulbrich said. “The next part of his game to evolve is his anticipation. With the anticipation comes the special plays that I think he’s capable of.”
Linebackers depth chart: Weakside -- 54 Foyesade Oluokun (527 snaps), 42 Duke Riley (407), 52 Yurik Bethune. Middle -- 45 Deion Jones (383), 55 Bruce Carter (78), 49 Tre Crawford, 46 Del’Shawn Phillips. Stronside -- 59 De’Vondre Campbell (899), 36 Kemal Ishmael (64), 53 Jermaine Grace, 48 Durrant Miles.
Who’s returning: Oluokun, Jones, Campbell, Riley, Carter and Ismael.
Carter impressed the coaches’ last season and contributed on special teams.
“He’s mentoring guys on the field, and he’s always showing that ‘I might be a veteran, but I can still run and I still have plenty of gas left in my tank’,” Ulbrich said. “I’m excited about what he brings.”
Who’s gone: Corry Nelson and Richard Jarvis, who played 18 and 17 snaps on special teams, respectively.
Roster competitions: The top six spots appear set, but the Falcons also like undrafted linebackers Crawford and Bethune.
“They both have impressed me,” Ulbrich said.
Position-by-position series: July 8: Special teams | July 9: Safeties | July 10: Cornerbacks | July 11: Linebackers | July 12: Defensive line | July 13: Quarterbacks |July 14: Offensive line | July 15: Wide receivers | July 16: Tight ends | July 17: Running backs