Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here belong to Matthew Tabeek and not the Atlanta Falcons, unless noted otherwise.
ATLANTA – When Deion Jones went down in the 2018 season-opener, the Falcons were not only without their top linebacker for the ensuing 10 games, the defense was without its best player.
And not many would dispute that, as the Falcons dropped in nearly every single defensive statistical category last year.
Jones is back, healthy and has a brand new four-year contract extension to boot. The centerpiece of the Falcons defense also spearheads one of the league's better linebacker corps which also includes De'Vondre Campbell and Foye Oulokun, an emerging second-year player from Yale (more on that below).
From safety to linebacker: Despite being decimated by injuries, one of the best stories of 2018 was the emergence Foye Oluokun, a sixth-round draft pick out of Yale who not only had to prove he belonged at this level but had to transition from playing safety to linebacker. Oluokun, who clocked a 4.48 in the 40, finished second on the team with 89 tackles while starting in seven games. He came on strong down the stretch, too, tallying 49 tackles during the final seven weeks of the season. Speaking of versatility, Oluokun can play all three linebacker spots (the MIKE, WILL and SAM) and probably play safety in a pinch, too.
The life of Riley: Duke Riley, who had been battling injuries this preseason, needed to have a big performance against the Redskins last week and delivered with a team-best six tackles, the biggest coming late in the second quarter when blew up the Redskins' lead blocker, shed the block and stuffed running back Derrius Guice on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Time will tell is this is a sign of things to come for the third-year linebacker out of LSU.
An emerging playmaker: Think or say what you want about Jermaine Grace, but all he's done is make plays over the last four preseason games:
- Against the Broncos: Four tackles, a half-sack and a QB hit.
- Against the Dolphins: Tied for a team-high five tackles and had an interception.
- Against the Jets: Team-high six tackles.
- Against the Redskins: Four tackles, a QB hit, a pass break-up at the goal line to prevent a score.
2019 roster forecast: 5 linebackers
As noted above, Jermaine Grace's play has stood out and earned him a spot on this team. I think you could make another strong case for Del'Shawn Phillips, too. Depending on how the numbers shake out at certain positions – running back, defensive line, safety and wide receiver – I could see a scenario where the Falcons keep six linebackers and Phillips ends up on the 53-man roster. If he doesn't, I think he's a shoo-in for the practice squad. The big name here who I could see not making the team is Bruce Carter, and that's mainly due to numbers and the play of Grace and the upside of Phillips.
- Deion Jones
- De'Vondre Campbell
- Foye Oluokun
- Duke Riley
- Jermaine Grace
Projected practice squad
There's always a chance that the Falcons could sign a player who is not currently on their roster, but if they stick with their own players, this is my projected 10-player practice squad:
- RB Tony Brooks-James
- WR Christian Blake
- DE Tre' Crawford
- DE Austin Larkin
- DE Durrant Miles
- TE Jaeden Graham
- OT Jaelin Robinson
- S Chris Cooper
- QB Danny Etling
- LB Del'Shawn Phillips
What do you think?
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Falcons Audible podcast
Matt Tabeek and Will McFadden weigh in with their final thoughts before roster cuts.