Predicting how the Falcons inside linebackers would pan out last year was super easy. Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones would play most every snap, with Mykal Walker in reserve. End of positional breakdown.
That's not the case this year. Everything's, well, cloudy heading into Falcons training camp. Oluokun's in Jacksonville and Jones is on PUP and his future with the team is uncertain (more on that later).
- Positional breakdowns: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Receivers/Tight ends, O-line; D-line
- Bair: Arthur Smith scheme, personnel upgrades provides potential for more explosive offense
- Falcons Building Blocks: Kyle Pitts, AJ Terrell, Chris Lindstrom, Drake London
- Finding the Falcons rookie class: Drake London, Arnold Ebiketie, Troy Andersen; Desmond Ridder; DeAngelo Malone, Tyler Allgeier, Justin Shaffer, John FitzPatrick
That's why the Falcons added lots of new talent in free agency and the NFL Draft. That's why this position will be a fascinating one to watch as this summer progresses.
Who's in the room: Dorian Etheridge, Rashaan Evans, Nick Kwiatkoski, Nathan Landman, Mykal Walker, Troy Andersen, Rashad Smith, Deion Jones
53-man projection: Rashaan Evans, Nick Kwiatkoski, Mykal Walker, Troy Andersen, Deion Jones
Projected starters: Deion Jones*, Rashaan Evans
*Mykal Walker if Jones is moved before the season starts
Where the position was: It was the Falcons defensive positional strength in 2021, with Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones as three-down players and Mykal Walker's quality in reserve. Oluokun established himself as a top-tier off-the-ball linebacker who thrived working under Dean Pees.
Jones had an off year by his lofty standards, but still flashed elite athleticism that made his name in the NFL. Walker didn't play a ton because the others were every-down options.
Where the position is: In a different place. Oluokun signed a bigger-money deal with Jacksonville, which constitutes a major blow to the Falcons defense. The teams wanted him to stay and Oluokun liked it in Atlanta, but the Falcons didn't have the salary cap space to match what was available to him on the open market.
Not only is the position in a different place, it's also in an uncertain place. Deion Jones was placed on the active/physically unable to perform list Thursday, not yet ready for on-field activity after reportedly undergoing shoulder surgery during the offseason. Whether he plays for the Falcons again is also up in the air. There has been some media chatter about him being traded in order to gain cap relief in 2022 and beyond by moving his massive contract. Will that happen? Unclear at this point, especially with him in the rehab process and some uncertainty about when he'll return.
So the Jones situation leaves the status and structure of this position group up in the air. If he's healthy and on the roster, you'd figure he starts and plays alongside middle linebacker Rashaan Evans, who worked with Pees in Tennessee.
Or, throwing more possibilities into an uncertain situation, maybe these aren't three-down positions anymore. Maybe it'll be a platoon between base defense and sub packages, considering the depth and options available at the position.
Nick Kwiatkoski has been a starting and backup middle linebacker who has performed well as a feature player. Then there's second-round pick Tory Andersen, a fast-as-heck, super-athletic rookie out of Montana State who won't be forced into action but could earn an early role. How he picks up the defense and applies it, and Jones' status, will factor into his playing time in 2022.
Whew. That was a lot. So many factors and variables at play with a position group that was so easy to predict a year ago. And, this is typically a four-man position group. You'll notice I've got five, including Jones, in my projection. If he remains on the roster, one of those other guys might not make it. Is Kwaitkoski the odd man out? That would be a tough cut. Or would they stick with five and try to trade Jones in-season? See how layered all this is? So, so many contingencies.
In sum, there's some sorting out that must happen to gain a clearer picture of how this position group will operate in 2022.
Where the position is going: I think it's safe to stay Jones isn't in the team's long-term future. He makes a ton and, even at 27, the Falcons seem to be going younger at the position. Andersen has the raw skills to be impactful at this level. Walker must prove he can be that by earning a more prominent role.
Evans is on a prove-it deal at just 26 and is looking for a new home after four years in Tennessee. The former first-round pick could be another candidate to be part of future seasons.