In 2015, the Atlanta Falcons linebacking corps was the least impressive unit on the defense, and a big part of this offseason was about finding athletes and playmakers who can improve on that.
Incumbents Paul Worrilow, Brooks Reed and Tyler Starr will have roles in this defense but the new guys are taking over and a path forward is what head coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith are working toward.
The free agent signings of Sean Weatherspoon and Courtney Upshaw, the drafting of Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell and moving Vic Beasley to a more linebacker-centric role is a shakeup of the group, but the new approach fits Quinn’s concept of versatility and can only be an improvement over 2015.
Looking to get faster, quicker linebackers the Falcons went a got some pieces of the puzzle that will fill the roles Quinn’s scheme needs. Weatherspoon has always been an effective linebacker when healthy but injuries derailed his first stint with the Falcons.
Last year with the Arizona Cardinals he managed only 128 snaps, and 11 total tackles coming back from an ACL injury. If Spoon can avoid injury and get back to the stellar play that made him a first round pick in 2010 he will be a key piece to the new look Falcons linebackers.
Another underrated free agent signing is Courtney Upshaw. The Alabama standout was drafted in the second round by Baltimore in 2012 and he piled up 183 tackles and four forced fumbles in his four seasons there, but Upshaw is a run stopping machine that will plug the middle on running downs and can be a quick lineman on passing downs.
The word out of camp is that Beasley will be moved to an outside linebacker role, and used as a DE in passing situations. Beasley had only four sacks in his rookie campaign but he did have 33 QB hurries, two forced fumbles and an interception. Again versatility is the key word, and in 2015 it was clear that Beasley was not always big enough to play DE and it looks like OLB will be a better use of his skills. Look for Beasley to be moved around a lot in an attempt to increase his sack numbers.
Second-round pick Deion Jones brings tremendous speed to the Falcons linebacker corps. At LSU he was instrumental in what is always an athletic defense. On passing downs he will come in and give the Falcons the speed that we haven’t seen in a long while, and he may supplant Worrilow as the starting middle LB.
The wildcard in the Falcons linebacker corps is the fourth round pick out of Minnesota, De’Vondre Campbell. Local sports talk raves about his training camp performance and his size and speed make him potentially a special find from the 2016 draft.
The Falcons secondary is vastly improved with the addition of first round pick Keanu Neal and the emergence of Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant as top-tier corners.
Adding Dwight Freeney and bringing back Adrian Clayborn, coupled with addition of versatile players like Courtney Upshaw and Derrick Shelby makes the Falcons defensive line an improved unit as well.
The linebackers are still a work in progress but Jones, Weatherspoon, Campbell and Beasley will bring a new regime to the group and lead the Falcons to a much faster, more physical presence on the field.