The Falcons entered training camp with many options at the weakside and middle linebacker, and on Thursday, head coach Dan Quinn showed and told the world who has risen to the top in those areas.
Rookies Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell started for the second straight game, a sign they've come a long way since April's draft. The two have bought into a system that champions speed, versatility and physical play, and by doing so, they've inspired a lot of confidence in the defense's long-term outlook.
Jones and Campbell had some teaching moments in Orlando, but overall, each looked like he belonged versus the Dolphins, registering five and two tackles, respectively. They were (and have been) particularly efficient in the nickel package, when they used their coverage ability to thwart opposing running backs and tight ends.
In the base 4-3 formation, Sean Weatherspoon continued to prove he's healthy and ready to chip in, gaining six tackles — three solo, two for loss. He's looked like his old self against the run and, to the delight of his large fan base, is shaping up to be one of the more cost-effective signings of 2016.
With Jones and Campbell progressing rapidly and Weatherspoon bringing muscle to the front seven, the Falcons' linebacker corps appears to be much-improved from a year ago. Quinn has been happy with their work thus far and is ready to give all three significant roles on defense.
"There are going to be a number of guys to play for us inside with the speed and the tenacity that we want to play with. It's going to take multiple guys. Inside, Jones, Campbell and Spoon are going to be big factors for us," Quinn said, adding that, while Paul Worrilow is still in the mix, the other three names mentioned are "getting the bulk of the reps."
For Weatherspoon, who's been hurt for most of the last three years, the most important key is to remain healthy. He understands the playbook. He knows what it takes to stop NFL offenses. If he avoids major injury, the hard-hitting veteran can lead with his voice and by example.
Of course the rookies want to stay fresh, too, but game action remains vital to their development. Jones said he needs to gain more experience "so the game can slow down a lot more for me," and Campbell, a fast learner, has been using the preseason to make adjustments and apply information he's absorbed.
"I think I'm doing really good," Campbell said. "I don't get nervous. I don't get rattled. Every time they throw something new at me, I take it like a grain of salt and adjust on the go. I think I've been doing really good. Coach thinks I've been doing really good. I am a typical rookie — I make mistakes, but the biggest thing is to correct them and keep pushing."