The biggest takeaway from the Atlanta Falcons’ first action of 2016 in their preseason-opening win over the Washington Redskins was that my expectations about linebacker Deion Jones might need to be re-assessed.
Among the Falcons’ top four draft selections this past year, Jones was the one that I had the least amount of optimism for about his professional prospects moving forward. While a gifted athlete, I’ve come to believe that it takes a lot more than athleticism to be successful in the NFL particularly for players like Jones that play at or near the line of scrimmage.
Jones barely played at 220 pounds during his days at LSU and will have to transition to a professional level where he’ll be facing 300-pound blockers on a weekly basis. And not just your run of the mill offensive linemen, but many of them proven and consistently high-level NFL starters. The worst starting linemen in the pros would still be considered far and away among the best that Jones could potentially face in college. That takes a certain level of physicality that Jones didn’t reliably display during his collegiate days in Baton Rouge.
This made me very skeptical about Jones’ ability to transition into a high-level linebacker that his second-round draft status suggests that he should be capable of. At least anecdotally, there seems to be more linebackers drafted early in recent years that have struggled to find their footing in the NFL because they weren’t physical enough rather than athletic enough. Prominent examples include Jonathan Bostic, Arthur Brown, Sio Moore and Zaviar Gooden, three of which are with their second NFL teams despite entering the league as second-day draft selections no earlier than 2013.
All of this lead to my skepticism in Jones, and while it may still be a bit premature to do a complete 180-degree turn based off one preseason game, I am certainly a lot more optimistic that Jones will be able navigate the obstacles he may face early in his NFL career.
Jones was very active during his first NFL action last Thursday evening, flying around the field and tying for the team lead with five tackles. While Jones’ speed and range were never really in question about his ability to transition at the NFL level, it was nice to finally see it in action.
But more importantly, Jones was able to square up with multiple Redskins blockers and win those matchups. Now it should be stated that being able to beat the blocks of linemen such as Shawn Lauvao, Spencer Long and Takoby Cofield isn’t quite the same as beating the blocks of Ryan Kalil, Kelechi Osemele and Terron Armstead, all of whom he’d be slated to face during his first month in the NFL should he gain a starting spot, but one has to start somewhere.
The impression I gained from Jones in his first preseason action is that he could potentially grow into a comparable player to the linebacker that started the game at middle linebacker in Sean Weatherspoon.
Weatherspoon’s Return to Atlanta Successful So Far
Weatherspoon made his triumphant return to Atlanta last week after a year with the Arizona Cardinals that saw the long-time Falcons defensive stalwart spend time on the bench and be forced into a special-teams role. Weatherspoon is another year removed from the Achilles tendon tear that caused him to miss the entire 2014 season and at least against the Redskins flashed that he might be capable of getting close to the level he was at pre-injury.
Once again, one must temper reactions somewhat due to it being a couple of series’ worth of action in an exhibition game, but Spoon looked active and physical while playing in the middle, a relatively new spot for him. Like Jones did in college, Weatherspoon has made his bones throughout his career as a weak-side linebacker but the transition based off one exhibition game looked relatively seamless.
It remains to be seen if Weatherspoon will continue to get reps in the middle throughout the remainder of the preseason. The team’s unofficial depth chart that they released for this week’s upcoming matchup against the Cleveland Browns still lists Weatherspoon on the weak side with incumbent Paul Worrilow manning the middle. But at least on Thursday, their roles were reversed and it remains to be seen if that was a one-time occurrence or something that will quickly become the norm moving forward.
The shifted roles seemed to work for both players as Worrilow too looked impressive at times against the run in his two series of action. However impressing during the preseason has never really been the problem for Worrilow but rather the struggles he tends to undergo when the real games are played.
It remains to be seen if Jones will be able to avoid that same fate. But if he can mimic Weatherspoon somewhat, it should put him in a better position.
While I still remain highly skeptical that Jones reaches the heights that Weatherspoon achieved in 2011 when he was one of the best linebackers in the league according to Pro Football Focus, I do believe that Jones is more than capable of reaching the same level of competency that Spoon showed in subsequent years where he was not quite as dominant, but still a very effective playmaker at linebacker.
During those years missed tackles were a regular occurrence with Weatherspoon, but at his best those missed opportunities were far outweighed by the plays he did make. At his worst particularly when the durability concerns also came into play, those missed tackles were a blight on Weatherspoon’s tenure and made it easy for many dismiss his value given his absence the past two seasons.
Yet I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the Falcons linebacker corps over the past two years without Weatherspoon could easily be considered the worst in the league in that span. His return to the lineup should give the team a boost at that position regardless of whether he is playing middle or weak-side linebacker.
Weatherspoon isn’t the biggest linebacker out there, which is one reason why he has a tendency to whiff on stops, but has never been shy about contact. Jones showed similar traits against the Redskins and that is something that hopefully will continue to progress and develop over the next four years while the LSU product is with the Falcons.
Weatherspoon + Jones = Winning Combination?
A starting duo that features both Weatherspoon and Jones might be the best combination for the Falcons moving forward. Whether that means that Jones or Weatherspoon is asked to start at middle linebacker this year is relatively inconsequential. Obviously the team wants Jones to be their long-term option there and thus it makes sense for them to plug him in sooner rather than later, but Weatherspoon’s experience also makes him a good option to “wear the green dot” in order to communicate with defensive coaches and “quarterback” the defense.
That pairing of both experience and youth would probably be the smartest one for the Falcons since it gives them the best of both worlds. Should the team go all-in on the experienced duo of Weatherspoon and Worrilow, it could lead to continued disappointment. While there’s at least the sliver of a hope that Weatherspoon might return to his pre-2014 form this season, there is very little optimism that Worrilow is going to be anything better than what he has been. While one might argue that Worrilow is a better fit as a weak-side linebacker and could improve, the past two seasons have brought similar promises about an uptick in his play, always leading to inevitable disappointment. Fool me thrice and I shouldn’t get fooled again. Any expectations that Worrilow is poised to rise above whatever the equivalent of the “Mendoza Line” for an NFL starter are misplaced at this point.
Consequently should the Falcons go in the opposite direction and throw Jones and fellow rookie and fourth-round pick De’Vondre Campbell out there as the starters, they’d risk the possibility of an excess of early growing pains. Campbell, while an athletic specimen that potentially surpasses that of Jones given his height and length, still looked a bit hesitant in terms of making reads and reactions against the Redskins, which was a major issue of his during his collegiate days at the University of Minnesota.
Campbell Still a Work in Progress
As the team’s designated weak-side linebacker of the future, there still may be a long road ahead for Campbell, whose prep and early collegiate career counted more on his abilities as a pass-rusher rather than a linebacker. He’s still somewhat new to the position and it showed at times against the Redskins where he was consistently the last defender in the box to react to certain plays.
That split-second hesitation matters in the pros because it gives blockers like Kalil or Osemele opportunities to get position against him, an opportunity that top-shelf blockers like themselves are extremely likely to take full advantage of.
If Campbell’s hesitation continues, the reality is likely to be that there will be plays that a veteran like Weatherspoon, who has never struggled with the instinctual aspect of playing the game, will be able to make that Campbell won’t simply due to the difference of a split-second reaction. Starting Weatherspoon early in the season to buy Campbell a bit more time might be the best play for the Falcons.
And as pessimistic as it might seem given Weatherspoon’s durability issues, there would still be a high probability that even if Campbell started the regular season as a reserve, he would get a starting opportunity at some point in 2016 to show his mettle. But due to the veteran presences of Weatherspoon, Worrilow and even Philip Wheeler, there really isn’t a rush for the Falcons to get Campbell on the field sooner rather than later.
Jones’ Early Success Critical for Falcons Defensive Turnaround
The same cannot be truly said with Jones, whose status as a second-round pick puts extra pressure on him to succeed sooner rather than later in Atlanta. For a coaching staff in desperate need for a playoff appearance soon, there are lingering concerns over how sharp the Falcons offense will be this year that were not quite put to bed against the Redskins. That puts even more pressure on the defense to pick up the slack and an important component of the team seeing defensive improvement will be if they can get significantly better play out of their middle linebacker.
Not to mention that the team hasn’t had a lot of success with second-round picks over the past five drafts. Outside 2013’s Robert Alford, the team has been mired with subpar efforts from second-rounders in Peter Konz (2012), Ra’Shede Hageman (2014) and Jalen Collins (2015). Konz is out of the league, Hageman is a rotational piece and Collins is on the verge of serving a four-game suspension after a very lackluster rookie season.
If Jones can reverse that course and become an impact defender in a similar mold as Alford, that would be a huge boost for the Falcons defense moving forward, which has struggled to solve their issues at middle linebacker ever since former 2008 second-round pick Curtis Lofton left in 2012. Lofa Tatupu, Akeem Dent and Worrilow have been big whiffs in that department.
What Jones showed more than anything against the Redskins was that he gives the team legitimate hope that the tide of ineptitude that has been breaking over the Falcons middle linebacker spot the past several years may finally be receding. It might have been the continual flow of busts at the position that prompted my initial skepticism, seeing Jones as a faster but ultimately still underwhelming option there.
It may also be that the Falcons have been so bad at middle linebacker than any glimmer of hope that Jones provides is prompting people like myself to latch onto anything that paints a happier portrait. But I don’t want to overstate my changing perception of Jones. I don’t expect him to be the second coming of Luke Kuechly, but I’m at least more optimistic that his immediate impact could be like his former LSU teammate Kwon Alexander had last season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Alexander struggled with missed tackles and other mistakes but made a number of big plays. And there’s reason to be optimistic that things started this year for Alexander will start to balance out much like they did with Weatherspoon in his prime as having the positive plays outweigh the negative ones.
I have a similar hope with Jones and if he winds up shattering those initial, low expectations to go onto having a successful career with the Falcons moving forward, then I’ll happily say I was wrong.