Falcons Training Camp 3 To Watch: Linebackers – Sports Illustrated

The Atlanta Falcons fielded one of the NFL’s most productive off-ball linebacker corps a season ago, with Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones combining for north of 300 tackles.
With Oluokun leaving for Jacksonville and Jones’ departure seemingly imminent, the Falcons will enter the season with a new look at the second level of their defense. 
With only third-year pro Mykal Walker and 2021 undrafted free agent Dorian Etheridge the only names set to return, general manager Terry Fontenot went to work, bringing in veteran free agents Rashaan Evans and Nick Kwiatkoski and drafting Troy Andersen in the third round.
Now featuring a unit fresh off a major facelift, the Falcons will be looking to replicate last season’s production, but with a higher importance placed on performance behind the numbers, as Oluokun and Jones often struggled to get off blocks at the point of attack.
Entering the 2022 season with new starters means new communicators and leaders at the heart of Atlanta’s defense. Who’s primed to step up? Here are three to watch during training camp.
A 2018 first-round pick out of Alabama, Evans had his best professional season in 2019 with the Tennessee Titans under the guide of defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Now reunited with Pees in Atlanta, Evans will be looking to regain the form that once led to him being viewed as one of the game’s top young defenders.
Evans, 26, has a profound understanding of Pees’ complex scheme, which should give him a step up over the other newcomers at linebacker. A proven NFL-caliber level, Evans offers the intellect, skill and veteran presence needed to offer the Falcons an upgrade from last year’s group.
While training camp is an opportunity for some to fight their way onto the roster or alter their positioning on the depth chart, Evans faces no such concerns; he’ll be with the starters. After falling out of favor in Tennessee, Evans has been given a second chance to prove he’s a three-down impact player, an opportunity that begins July 26 when veterans report to Flowery Branch.
Arguably the most intriguing addition of Atlanta’s 2022 rookie class, Andersen starred at quarterback, running back, and linebacker throughout his time at Montana State. At 6-3, 243-pounds, Andersen ran a 4.42 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. It was one of several drills he in which he shined, creating an outstanding athletic profile in the pre-draft process.
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While the Falcons find Andersen’s past on both sides of the ball to be a plus regarding the enhancement of his football intelligence, the 23-year-old’s relative inexperience at linebacker has led to a steep learning curve. Though Andersen impressed coaches during rookie minicamp and OTAs, the staff acknowledged he’s still in a learning phase.
With roughly six weeks between the conclusion of OTAs and his first training camp as a professional, Andersen has had time to go back to the drawing board and prepare – both physically and mentally – for his rookie season. A telling sign as to where he’s at in his development is whether he’s working with Evans and the first-team or the backups.
If Andersen enters as a second-string player, it shouldn’t be viewed as an underwhelming develop, as Atlanta drafted him with his long-term upside in mind. Nevertheless, the FCS product has an exciting mix of tools, and training camp should reveal lots regarding how soon he’ll be able to showcase them at the NFL level.
Perhaps the most obvious breakout candidate on Atlanta’s defense, Walker enters year three with the best opportunity he’s had to date. Now that Oluokun and (most likely) Jones are out of the picture, Walker is suddenly the longest-tenured Falcon among the team’s linebackers.
The 6-3, 230-pounder from Fresno State started two games a season ago, posting 35 total tackles across 17 games and recording a crucial pick-six in Atlanta’s one-score victory over the Carolina Panthers. Walker had a growth-filled offseason in the weight room, with his build drawing positive reviews from the Falcons staff.
While year three won’t necessarily go down as a make-or-break season for Walker considering his history of solid contributions, there’s no guarantee he’ll be given another opportunity to seize control of a starting linebacker position. As Atlanta’s most experienced option at SAM linebacker, it’s possible the perfect storm has been created for Walker to break onto the scene in year three.
One final name to keep an eye on is undrafted rookie Nate Landman. The former Colorado Buffalo was named Atlanta’s “surprise offseason standout” following OTAs and provides exceptional instincts and tackling ability. While it’s unlikely he challenges for starting reps at linebacker, Landman has a chance to make the roster due to strong special team’s skills.
Losing Oluokun, the NFL’s leading tackler last season, was always going to create a void in the middle of Atlanta’s defense. Now faced with the probability of losing the team’s second-leading tackler in Jones, the Falcons have plenty of snaps – and production – available.
With an exciting combination of veterans looking to rejuvenate their careers and young players working to carve their paths, the second level of Atlanta’s defense has an element of uncertainty but might just have the right mix needed to take the unit to the next level.

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Christopher Jones
Christopher Jones
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