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Tabeek: Locking up NFL's best young linebacker a no-brainer

Deion Jones is one of the elite young linebackers in the National Football League and on Wednesday, the Atlanta Falcons rewarded their 24-year-old rising star with a four-year deal through the 2023 season. It was a no-brainer.

There aren't many who would argue with either of those statements.

Here's one more for you to chew on: These 2019 Falcons have no shot at winning the NFC South or earning a postseason berth if Deion Jones isn't on the field.

Back in May, I wrote that if the Falcons hope to return to the postseason, the offense must get the running game back on track – and a healthy, rejuvenated Devonta Freeman will be key in making that happen.

The defense, once a top-10 unit back in 2017, must return to form as well. And Deion Jones, undeniably the best player on the Falcons defense, must be on the field leading the charge.

While players and coaches will never use injuries as an excuse, the Falcons were decimated by them in 2018. On defense, both starting safeties were lost to season-ending injuries early in the year and, Jones, who is the heart of the Falcons' Cover-3 scheme, went down with a foot injury in the season-opening loss to the Eagles and subsequently missed 10 games.

The void Jones left was painfully clear.

The defense slipped in several statistical categories last season: 31st in third-down conversion percentage allowed (48.7 percent), 28th in yards allowed per game (384.5), 28th in red zone touchdowns percentage (70.4 percent), 27th in pass yards allowed per game (259.6), 25th in points allowed per game (26.4), 25th in rush yards allowed per game (124.9) and tied for 22nd in sacks (37).

More specifically, with Jones, the Falcons allowed 22.3 points per game and no more than 30 points twice. Without him, the defense allowed 28.9 points per game and surrendered at least 30 points four times.

The end result was a 7-9 record and the Falcons missed the playoffs after back-to-back trips in 2016 and 2017. It was also Dan Quinn's first losing season since taking over as head coach in 2015.

While Jones' body of work is relatively small – he has just 37 regular-season and three postseason games under his belt – it's an impressive one. Jones, a Pro Bowl selection in 2017, has tallied eight career interceptions (returning three for scores), 297 total tackles and 15 tackles for losses.

And following his breakout season in 2017, Jones established himself as the game's best pass coverage linebackers in the game when, according to Pro Football Focus, he finished with an elite 91.7 coverage grade across 719 coverage snaps.

While Jones' stats are without a doubt impressive, he has established a reputation for making plays in the biggest moments. And, as’s Will McFadden writes, Jones "has become the new prototypical linebacker in a league where offenses are rapidly evolving to exploit matchups and attack space" and one of the NFL's top off-ball linebackers.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has systematically identified core players to secure for the long term while, at the same time, continued to draft players who've managed to make an early impact and contribute right away.

Jones, who was drafted in the second round (No. 52 overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft – a draft haul that also included safety Keanu Neal (17th overall), tight end Austin Hooper (No. 81) and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (No. 115) – is a sterling example of that.

In three short seasons, Jones has developed into the most important piece of Quinn's defense and there's no indication that's he's even close to reaching his ceiling as a player.

Securing Jones with a four-year extension is not only a no-brainer, I'd argue that he's as vital to the team's long-term success as offensive superstars Matt Ryan or Julio Jones.

And I don't think anyone would argue with that one, either.

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