FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Training camp is rapidly approaching, and there are some exciting new players joining the brotherhood. With practices about to get underway, now is the perfect opportunity to analyze the Falcons' 2017 rookie class and what they bring to the team.
Our second piece in this series will focus on rookie linebacker Duke Riley.
Atlanta found one of the best young linebackers in the game when it drafted LSU's Deion Jones in the 2016 NFL Draft. With their third-round pick this year, the Falcons snagged another Tigers linebacker and reunited Jones and Riley.
Like his new Falcons teammate, Riley did not become a full-time starter at LSU until his senior season. Despite only one year of action, the 6-foot, 232-pound linebacker showed steady improvement and became an asset against both the run and the pass. Riley's ability to quickly navigate a learning curve last season provides optimism that he can take another step forward in training camp.
Let's look at the newest LSU linebacker to join the club and what Riley brings to Atlanta.
College stats (four seasons at LSU):
- 144 tackles
- 10 tackles for loss
- 1.5 sacks
- 1 interception
- 1 fumble return
Riley's stats prior to his senior season reflect his role as a reserve player, but his 93 tackles in 2016 led all LSU defenders and he finished sixth in the SEC with 7.8 tackles per game. Riley occupied the exact same position and role that Jones vacated, and he fared nearly as well. Some of his best games came against the SEC's top competition. Against Alabama and Auburn, Riley had a combined 22 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss.
What Riley may lack in size, he more than makes up for with his speed. His 40-yard dash time of 4.58 was the second-fastest among linebackers at this year's combine, and he also placed in the top five times in the three-cone drill (6.89 seconds) and the 20-yard shuttle (4.21). This speed makes Riley a player the Falcons can use in coverage. LSU employed Riley as their primary coverage linebacker, and he finished second among SEC linebacker with just .42 yards per snap in coverage last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Aside from his physical gifts, Riley has demonstrated a mental understanding of the game that well exceeds his limited time as a starter. He rarely misses his run gap assignment and can quickly diagnose plays after the snap. The rookie linebacker figures to be a big contributor on special teams, an area where he excelled in college. Riley should also be a great addition to this team's chemistry. Despite all of the stars that LSU possessed in 2016, it was Riley who was named team MVP in his first year as a starter.
The two clips below show what Riley brings in run defense. In the first, his ability to scrape along the line of scrimmage and closing speed are highlighted. In the second, Riley displays the hard-nosed mentality and technique needed to knock one of the SEC's most punishing runners backwards.
Based on what he showed during his senior season, Riley likely could have been a first- or second-rounder had he started for multiple years. Starting for just one season didn't hamper Jones as a rookie in the slightest, though, and Riley progressed quickly with increased reps. The other potential weakness is his size. At LSU, Riley struggled to get off of blocks against bigger linemen and is considered undersized for the position. Many said the same thing about Jones, however, and his speed was much more of an asset in 2016 than his size was a hindrance.
Plus, as Riley demonstrates in the clip below, a smaller frame does not equal a lack of strength.
What to watch for in camp
Despite his third-round status, Riley should make a strong push to crack the linebacker rotation coming out of training camp. Following the selection of Riley, Falcons coach Dan Quinn explained that he envisioned the rookie in either the MIKE or WILL linebacker spots. With Jones thriving in the middle, Riley seems to be an obvious fit at the weakside spot alongside his former teammate. In this position, his speed should be maximized, something Quinn is fully aware of.
"The speed he plays with fits terrifically into our style," Quinn said of Riley on the night he was drafted. "We clearly know how to feature him in that role. We are pumped to have him on board and we can't to get him here and get started with him. He's going to be a factor for us moving forward."