INDIANAPOLIS – Among the three players Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff announced the team would allow to hit free agency on Tuesday was linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. In his four seasons in Atlanta, Campbell became a reliable matchup for the Falcons against opposing tight ends.
The 6-foot-4, 232-pound linebacker possesses a rare combination of size, length and athleticism to match up against the league's best tight ends, and Campbell was the team's leading tackler in each of the past two seasons.
Although the Falcons will allow Campbell to test the open market, Dimitroff also stated that the team would continue to engage in negotiations with all three players and would like to have them back in Atlanta if they are able to reach an agreement on a contract.
"Our moves to talk about [Austin Hooper], as well as Campbell, as well as [Wes] Schweitzer to get to free agency in no way does that mean we're not interested in continuing to negotiate," Dimitroff said. "It's just we need them into the market to help us gauge where we are, being one of the teams that's in that spot where we need to be right about how we approach our salary cap for the future."
Ultimately, however, there is risk in letting those players test the open waters of NFL free agency. In the possible event that they are unable to retain Campbell, the Falcons are confident in the player they have waiting in the wings.
In his first two seasons with Atlanta, former sixth-round pick Foye Oluokun has been nothing short of promising. Forced into early action as a rookie after Deion Jones landed on injured reserve in 2018, Oluokun finished second on the team with 89 tackles. He also proved adept in coverage as a rookie, earning a coverage grade of at least 70 from Pro Football Focus in five of his final 10 games.
Oluokun didn't see as much playing time in 2019, but he handled himself well during his time on the field. PFF assigned Oluokun an overall defensive grade above 80 just once in 2018, but he topped that mark four times last season, including an elite grade of 90.6 against the Arizona Cardinals. His overall PFF grade of 62.7 was the second-highest among Falcons linebackers last season and tied for 37th among all NFL linebackers, ahead of such players as Thomas Davis, K.J. Wright and Leighton Vander Esch.
"We really like Foye's overall ability and his overall package," Dimitroff said. "His smarts, of course; he's a very smart football player. He leads in his own, I think it's an impressive way. He's versatile as well, and he has the ability to be a starter in this league and play for us and be a starter for us."
The NFL has become a matchup-oriented league with opposing offenses seeking to exploit advantages through pre-snap motion and personnel groupings. Oluokun has shown the ability to carry opposing tight ends downfield. Although he does not have the unique size that Campbell possesses, the former college safety does have plenty of speed and has proven to be a reliable tackler, something that is paramount in Atlanta's zone defense.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn knows what he's looking for in the defensive scheme he brought with him to Atlanta and how important it is to have coverage skills in his linebackers. When assessing how Oluokun could fill the role if Campbell does land elsewhere, Quinn saw a key similarity between the two players.
"That's really how we featured Dre through the years is matching up on tight ends," Quinn said. "So, Foye is definitely one [who can do that]. When you go into a game it's usually, 'OK, who are the guys that are going to guard the tight ends?' Foye, when we did those, he did a lot. And he had to take on more of that role the year prior. So, his rookie year, he was actually doing that as well. We've gone through the last couple of years to make sure he can handle the tough assignments. I thought he is definitely one that, not only did we count on him, he would definitely be part of that group."
Here is a look at all players set to enter free agency when the new league year begins on March 18. Restricted free agents and exclusive rights free agents are noted in the captions.