FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons grew younger and faster at linebacker last year on the way to the Super Bowl, and they’re not finished turbo charging after adding at least one more rookie and another speedy player to the unit.
By drafting LSU’s Duke Riley in the third round, and converting former safety KeMal Ishmael to linebacker, head coach Dan Quinn is moving ahead with his plan to make Atlanta’s defense one of the NFL’s fastest.
The youth component, where Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell worked their way into the starting lineup last season as rookies, is not coincidence.
“Duke’s off to a good start. We knew we had something there all the way back, in the spring,” Quinn said after the Falcons’ fifth training camp practice. “He’s making the mistakes that young players do sometimes, but I’m happy with his speed and attitude. He fits right into the style of defense that we play.”
Atlanta drafted Jones in the second round in 2016, out of LSU, and made Campbell a fourth-round pick out of Minnesota.
Jones played in 15 games, starting 13, and was in on 108 tackles with 11 pass breakups, three interceptions, and two touchdown returns. Campbell played in 11 and started 10 in a season somewhat troubled by injuries.
For now, they’re being joined on the first team by five-year veteran LaRoy Reynolds, who’s in a spot manned frequently last season by departed free agent Philip Wheeler or by end/linebacker Vic Beasley, the NFL’s sacks leader (15.5).
The second unit has generally been comprised of Ishmael, Riley and rookie free agent Paul Byrd of Minnesota.
Falcons fans should not be surprised to see Riley on the field. Coaches have praised his aptitude, and he’s quick.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, he turned in the second-fastest time among linebackers in the 40-yard dash (4.58 seconds), fourth-fastest 20-yard shuttle drill (4.21) and fifth-fastest three-cone drill (6.89).
“My first training camp, just taking it day by day,” Riley said. “(Linebackers) coach Brick (Jeff Ulbrich) is coaching us every day to limits I never thought I could get to. He’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Campbell is the biggest of the group at 6-foot-3, 234 pounds, and he spent time in the offseason with former Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith working on pass rushing skills. He may be deployed at times as an edge rusher from the strong side.
After Atlanta drafted safety Damontae Kazee in the fifth round out of San Diego State, where he set a school record with 15 interceptions in his two final seasons, the Falcons bumped Ishmael to linebacker.
“Adding that speed to the linebacker group is something we’re always looking to do and he seemed like the ideal fit,” Quinn explained.
Ishmael’s fitting in fast.
“He’s our swiss army knife. He can do it all,” Ulbrich said. “Middle, weakside, strongside … he plays all three positions and plays them all really, really well.”
Several players can probably plan on play multiple positions.
“Last year, I had no clue what to expect. I was pretty much just running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” Jones said. “It’s real good to sit back and focus on the things that I need to focus upon.”
NOTES: Falcons All-Pro WR Julio Jones (foot surgery) participated in full-contact (no tackling) 11-on-11 work for the first time Wednesday, in the team’s sixth practice. He was previously limited to individual drills and conditioning. … Kazee, who’s had a couple interceptions already, was limited by an ankle injury. . . . WR/KR Andre Roberts did not practice because of an undisclosed injury.