FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – De'Vondre Campbell may not yet receive the same level of national recognition as fellow 2016 draft class members Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, but the Falcons' third-year linebacker has proven himself an important part of an ascending defense.
Campbell transitioned to the SAM linebacker position last offseason, but injuries on the defense forced him to rotate back to his previous WILL linebacker spot. Although he was moved around last season, Campbell is back at the SAM, where his size and speed should allow him to be a threat as a pass rusher and when dropped into coverage.
"I saw the tip of the iceberg regarding him as a rusher," Falcons linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich said of Campbell. "Pass rush I think takes an extreme amount of technique and experience to become good at it. I think you saw little glimpses of him being able to affect the passer in that way. You also saw a guy who became, I think, extremely good at covering tight ends. I think for the most part he would eliminate tight ends from games. Then getting up to the line of scrimmage, you saw a guy with the ability to set edges because he's got crazy length."
At 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds, Campbell has the natural length to become a threat off the edge. Campbell recorded two sacks last year at the SAM position, highlighting the potential he has in that aspect of the game with greater repetition.
Perhaps his greatest skill, however, is matching up in coverage against opposing tight ends. According to Pro Football Focus, Campbell was the 14th-best linebacker in coverage last season, earning a coverage grade of 80.7. Campbell performed well against some of the top tight ends in the league, stifling players like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen.
Campbell's strength in coverage will allow the Falcons to place a greater emphasis on his role as a pass-rusher this summer, something head coach Dan Quinn noted after the second day of organized team activities.
"When we moved him last year from SAM back to WILL linebacker, it's such an important aspect of his game – we know he can rush off the edge," Quinn said. "The fact that he guards tight ends and is really good at that, during this time, not only will we work some of the tight end stuff but he'll definitely work on the pass-rush element, too."
Entering the 2016 draft, Campbell's NFL.com draft profile described him as a player with great athleticism but one who may take time to develop.
"Campbell has an Academic All-Big Ten under his belt, but the classroom smarts don't always translate into on-field instincts for the linebacker," NFL.com draft expert Lance Zierlein wrote. "While Campbell has terrific size and NFL-caliber athleticism, his inability to consistently perform his assignments as a second level linebacker could make him a project."
After his second season, it's been Campbell's athletic and intellectual versatility that has impressed the Falcons the most. Atlanta always looks to put a player in position to maximize his strengths, and Campbell has plenty of them.
In whichever way the Falcons choose to employ Campbell, he has demonstrated the skills to succeed in that role. Whether it's in coverage against a top-flight tight end, coming off the edge as a pass rusher or utilizing his length to impede a running back's path, Campbell can perform a variety of assignments and add new dimensions to the Falcons' defense. "What was really cool about the whole thing was when Duke went down, and Vic played some SAM and De'Vondre went to WILL, De'Vondre didn't blink an eye," Ulbrich said. "So he went from SAM to WILL, from nickel SAM to nickel WILL; he showed an extreme amount of versatility. And here's a guy who supposedly wasn't instinctual and wasn't bright and this and that. He was one of the brightest guys on our entire defense this year."