FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Falcons' defense showed just what they are capable of as the 2017 season progressed, finishing as a top-10 unit and stifling opposing offenses as Atlanta became the only NFC team to return to the postseason.
In the center of the Falcons' defense are a corps of young linebackers led by Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, who are entering their third season in the NFL. While Jones and Campbell have already demonstrated a high caliber of play in their first two years, Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich believes they've yet to approach what they are truly capable of.
"Individually, I think that what you've seen is just a glimpse of what they can be," he said. "I think that both have parts of their game that are not complete that they need to work on. The reason they've got a chance to fulfill their potential is that they have such humility and they understand I have deficiencies, and I have things I need to work on and they're committed to it every day. They work for it and they put the time in and they empty their tanks. I think they can be special players in this league."
Jones was named to his first Pro Bowl last season and has registered 244 tackles, 21 pass defenses, six interceptions and two defensive touchdowns in his first two years with the Falcons. Campbell has a unique combination of size and speed that allows him to match up with some of the best tight ends in the league, which he did in 2017 against the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen.
Alongside Jones and Campbell, the Falcons have Duke Riley, a third-round draft pick in 2017, and Foyesade Oluokun, who was selected in the sixth round of this year's NFL Draft. Safety Kemal Ishmael has operated in a hybrid type of role for the Falcons, providing them with another option at outside linebacker if needed.
Riley's rookie season was plagued by injury, but he has the speed and instincts the Falcons look for at the position. The same can be said of Oluokun, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds and played both linebacker and safety in college.
"He's looking good," Ulbrich said of Oluokun. "He's got all of the stuff you can't coach. He's fast, he's explosive, he's got tremendous length. It'll be fun. Every day is just like a new day right now for him. He's learning a lot and he's soaking it up. He's tremendously smart, obviously, probably a lot smarter than me. He doesn't repeat mistakes and he's very eager. It'll be fun to see where he can go."
Ulbrich described the Falcons' linebackers room as a "very inclusive" one. He explained that Jones, Campbell and Ishmael have gone out of their way to help the younger players under their wing, helping them learn what it takes to make an impact in the NFL.
"It's really cool," Ulbrich said. "Like even these afternoon meetings that the veterans aren't supposed to be in, Deion will be there. Not because I asked it of him but because [former Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow] did it for him, and obviously someone probably did it for Worrilow. He's in that pass-it-along mode at all times, which is really cool."
Given the youth at the position, there's reason to believe we've yet to see the best that the Falcons' linebackers have to offer. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn often explains that a player's biggest leaps in their development comes between their first and second year and again between their second and third year.
If that is indeed the case, then there may be yet another uptick in play at the linebacker position in Atlanta. As a unit, Ulbrich explained that they've got a specific goal in mind. "As far as collectively, I think that's one of their goals – to be regarded as the top linebacker unit in the NFL," he said. "They take a lot of pride in that. As they improve individually, hopefully they can create that reputation and establish themselves as that."