With Falcons linebacker LaRoy Reynolds out with a chest injury, rookie Duke Riley appears to have a clear path to the starting weakside linebacker position.
“We’ve been very encouraged by where he’s at, at this point,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said on Sunday. “We see him taking on a big role for us at this (weakside) linebacker spot.”
Reynolds, a special teamer who was getting a closer look, started all three exhibition games. Quinn declared him out for the exhibition season finale on Thursday against the Jaguars and said he was getting a second opinion on his injury.
Riley was taken in the third round (75th overall) of the 2017 NFL draft out of LSU.
Quinn and his staff have not been afraid to start rookies. Middle linebacker Deion Jones, safety Keanu Neal and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell all started last season in their first seasons.
Riley played 32 snaps on defense in the 24-14 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday and spent some time with the first unit. He had two tackles, a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery.
“This week we felt that Duke made a really big jump,” Quinn said. “It started back in practice in terms of the speed (and) the physicality that showed him playing even more down hill.”
Campbell started at weakside linebacker last season, but has been moved to strongside linebacker. However, on the team’s depth chart he’s still listed at No. 1 and Riley is listed in the second slot at the position.
Quinn said the position requires a player with the skills to blitz and cover tight ends and running backs, especially on third downs.
“De’Vondre plays a good portion of that stuff too,” Quinn said. “In our base package, the (weakside) linebacker is mostly behind the ball. We are encouraged by what we’ve seen. He’s got a good understanding of route concepts.”
Riley has appeared more comfortable in each of the three exhibition games.
“It was good for me too because I’m out there with the first team,” Riley said. “I was out there with the first team a lot and I got to go against their first team a lot. It’s kind of like I’m here now. I’m in the NFL. But I deserve to be here because of the work that I put in.”
Riley felt that he fit in with the first team just fine.
“I wasn’t really worrying about being out there,” Riley said. “I was just worried about being aligned, reading my keys and making sure that they didn’t get any touchdowns.”
Riley was a three-star recruit coming out of John Curtis High in Bursa, La., and picked LSU over TCU and Tulane. The offer from the Tigers was a grayshirt opportunity, but the week before signing day, LSU upgraded the offer to a full scholarship.
He moved into the starting lineup last season and led LSU with 93 tackles, adding nine tackles for loss, two passes defended and one interception.
“I know I have a lot to improve on,” Riley said. “I’m just taking little steps every day. I’m seeing things and different stuff that they are giving us and working off of that.”
Riley, who listed at 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, believes he’s ready if he gets the call to start.
“If my name was called to be the guy, I’d definitely be ready,” Riley said. “I put work in. I practice hard every day, but that’s not what I’m worried about. I’m worried about helping the team as much as I can, putting the guys and myself in the best position to dominate the other opponents.
“That’s really not one of the things I’m worried about, if I’m starting are not. I’m just focused on today. What can I do today to get better tomorrow.”
Jones, a former LSU teammate, has been sharing information with Riley.
“We always stress communications and I told him that was something that I didn’t really do as well at the beginning of my rookie year,” Jones said. “I want him to not make the same mistake that I made. We pretty much have him out there talking and giving alerts also.”
Quinn clearly believes that Riley will help the unit either as a starter or a quality reserve.
“He’s off to a hell of a start in terms of the style and attitude that we want to play with at linebacker,” Quinn said.
ATLANTA FALCONS 2017 EXHIBITION SEASON
GAME THREE: CARDINALS 24, FALCONS 14
GAME TWO: STEELERS 17, FALCONS 13
GAME ONE: DOLPHINS 23, FALCONS 20