Despite losing De'Vondre Campbell to free agency this offseason, the Falcons still have one of the best linebacker corps in the eyes of Pro Football Focus.
The football analytics site recently ranked the linebacker groups for all 32 NFL teams, and the Falcons fared very well in their assessment. PFF believes the linebacker room in Atlanta is the seventh-best in the league, ahead of teams like the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers.
"Over the past three years, Deion Jones is tied for the lead among linebackers with a 92.2 coverage grade, and we've seen how important he is to Atlanta's defense when he's missed time due to injury," PFF's Steve Palazzolo writes. "Jones was incredible in 2017, finishing with a 91.7 coverage grade while consistently making plays on the ball in crunch time. In his four-year career, Jones has 24 pass breakups and 10 interceptions, though he has graded in the 60.0s in the run game in his three full seasons. Jones' ability to patrol the middle of the field is one of the catalysts for the Falcons' defense."
Jones appears to be the reason the Falcons rank as highly as they do. The fifth-year linebacker has long been a favorite of PFF's, and he is undoubtedly one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. His presence at the heart of Atlanta's defense has helped the Falcons contain dynamic players within the division like Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara, who Jones often blankets.
Still, these rankings are about more than a single player, and it's hard to believe PFF would place the Falcons above a team like the Vikings based solely on Jones, alone. With Campbell gone, it's expected that third-year linebacker Foye Oluokun will step into a starting role after shining in limited time during his first two seasons.
Oluokun has plenty of athleticism – he played safety at Yale – and should help the Falcons remain one of the speedier linebacker units in the league. Atlanta also signed another hybrid safety this offseason in Deone Buccannon, and the athleticism of both players did not go unnoticed by PFF.
"Next to him is 2018 sixth-rounder Foyesade Oluokun, who has graded in the 60.0s in each of his two NFL seasons," Palazzolo writes. "Oluokun is another undersized, athletic linebacker who ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash and wipes out underneath routes in zone coverage. Deone Bucannon is also in the mix, though he has graded above 70.0 just once in his six-year career — and that was back in 2015. The former safety is on to his fourth team, and while he should add coverage versatility, it hasn't shown up in the form of production since 2016."
To bolster their depth and add more size an length after Campbell's departure, the Falcons selected Mykal Walker in the fourth round of April's draft. Walker is a unique player who was used a lot as a pass rusher during his career at Fresno State, but he is a good athlete who could develop into a rangy linebacker. Walker should benefit from working with Jeff Ulbrich, the Falcons' talented linebacker coach.
It's not often that the Falcons defense receives praise. In PFF's view, however, the linebacker group in Atlanta deserves to buck that trend.
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