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Eye on the Undrafteds: Why Dorian Etheridge, Erroll Thompson have stood out at inside linebacker

Both young rookies have real shot at a 53-man roster spot

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Atlanta Falcons linebacker Erroll Thompson #53 and linebacker Dorian Etheridge #48 listen to Matt Pees during 2021 Atlanta Falcons Minicamp on June 9, 2021.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Dorian Etheridge had 13 tackles in last week's preseason opener against Tennessee. A cool baker's dozen, and nine more than the next Falcons defender.

That's, you know, a lot. While some dismiss tackles as an unimportant stat, having so many shows how active the undrafted rookie was around the ball. The more impressive number: Etheridge had three tackles for a loss. Those are important plays, drive killers for a defense.

Etheridge wasn't the only undrafted inside linebacker to make a good impression during the Titans game. Erroll Thompson did, too.

"[Dorian Ethridge] has done a nice job. Him and Erroll [Thompson] both have," Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said right after the Titans game. "So has Emmanuel [Ellerbee]. I've been very pleased with the inside linebacker room, Deion [Jones], Foye [Oluokun], Mykal Walker, Erroll, Dorian. Dorian made a couple plays. Erroll, I thought was pretty physical, too. It's exciting. Those guys stepped up. I'm excited about them."

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That's good to see, a solid way to stand out from the rest and imperative for undrafted rookies trying to find a roster spot. Etheridge and Thompson have an uphill climb just by playing interior linebacker, the Falcons' strongest and deepest defensive position group.

Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun are established, every-down players who can cover, tackle well and get after the quarterback. Mykal Walker offers excellent injury protection and depth at the position. There's an opening for the fourth linebacker. Will there be a fifth? Only if special teams play demands it, but that means going light at another position group.

Etheridge and Thompson are making decisions tough with a strong preseason start.

"I thought that two inside guys of rookies did a nice job were Erroll [Thompson] and Dorian [Etheridge]," Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said on Tuesday. "We'll see if they can go down there against a different scheme, different environment down in Miami, and then Saturday night will be big for them again."

While they weren't perfect during two days of joint practices, both Etheridge and Thompson had some nice moments against Miami. It will be important to show growth between the Titans game and Saturday's preseason contest against Miami.

They'll certainly play a lot against the Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium, and they'll need to put up quality game tape on defense and special teams to build off their solid first impression.

There isn't room for many of them, so they have to prove worthy on a regular basis to land real estate on the 53-man roster. Both Etheridge and Thompson have a shot if they can keep good momentum going.

Making it and showcasing versatility might lead to an important role even with Jones and Oluokun regularly on the field.

"If you want to be multiple, versatility is the key. And so, there'll be times where we can get creative, because of those guys' skill sets," Smith said, referring to the entire inside linebacker corps. "You may see three of those guys on the fields at the same time, you could see four. You could see two, however, we mix and match. We feel like guys that will be dressed will all have a role on the defense on game day. And then obviously the ones that aren't regular starters, they need to help [special teams coordinator] Marquice [Williams] … on fourth down, in the special teams game."

The Atlanta Falcons are in Miami participating in joint practices with the Dolphins leading up to the second preseason game on Saturday.

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