The Atlanta Falcons have placed a heavy emphasis on adding players with versatility to their defense this offseason, and that's exactly what they are getting in hybrid linebacker-safety Deone Bucannon.
A former first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft (No. 27 overall), Bucannon was originally drafted as a safety coming out of Washington State. He seems to possess the type of qualities Atlanta has sought in its linebackers during the Dan Quinn era. At 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, Bucannon is fairly small for an NFL linebacker, but he's played around 220 pounds before during his career.
That size has not been a major disadvantage for Bucannon, however. In fact, it's allowed him to play with the speed of a safety, something the Falcons have valued in players like Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun. When comparing Bucannon to those players, athletically, he seems like a natural fit for the Falcons' defense.
For the bulk of his time with the Arizona Cardinals, where he played from 2014-2018, Bucannon was an inside linebacker. Given the frequency with which the Cardinals employed their nickel defense, though, Bucannon wasn't a traditional inside linebacker in the way fans might think. Instead, he was asked to use his speed and coverage skills to act as another pseudo-safety on the field.
Bucannon's best play came during a three-year stretch from 2015-17 with the Cardinals. In that time, he started 41 games, recorded 285 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 10 pass defenses, five forced fumbles and two interceptions.
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Since that three-year run, Bucannon has not been able to produce at that same level. Injuries and a new coaching regime limited his effectiveness during his final season in Arizona, and he spent the 2019 season with both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants, never quite finding his place. But the tools remain in place for Bucannon to become a quality piece of the Falcons' defensive rotation and a core special teams player.
He has a fly-to-the-ball mentality that often led to him chasing down plays or shutting down receivers in the flat. Although smaller, Bucannon showed a consistent ability to beat blockers to the point of attack or slip off them to make a play. And Bucannon enters a situation that should allow him to maximize those specific skills.
Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich is among the best in the league at working with athletic players and allowing them to translate that athleticism to the field. Bucannon isn't too far off from Jones, athletically, and Ulbrich has been able to turn the former Falcons' second-round pick into one of the game's top linebackers.
Now, that won't be the expectation for Bucannon in 2020. Oluokun is expected to get the first crack at a starting role with Campbell now – ironically – in Arizona, and the Falcons also selected Mykal Walker in the fourth round of the draft. But Bucannon should be a quality rotational player right from the start, and, still just 27 years old, he's got the athletic upside to make the linebacker corps better.
The NFL has become increasingly about creating mismatches on offense. By adding Bucannon as a depth piece, the Falcons now have someone who is still able to operate in multiple roles once he's subbed into the game.