FLOWERY BRANCH – Ask an opposing coach that faced the Falcons last season and one of the most impressive features of Atlanta’s defense was the speed at linebacker. Head coach Dan Quinn took the mantra “fast and physical” seriously when he drafted two linebackers with top-10 40 times at their position.
Foes among the 2017 slate of games are going to have to work even harder to combat Atlanta’s sideline-to-sideline, be-everywhere velocity.
The Falcons’ third-round pick, Duke Riley, had the second fastest 40-yard dash among linebackers at the combine, the fastest if you consider Jabrill Peppers (the only “linebacker” faster) a safety. Riley’s 4.58 sprint was reaffirmation for scouts that he could move.
Quinn saw it even more Friday at the team’s first rookie minicamp session.
“Our linebackers are going to be able to run,” said Quinn. “That showed today not just with him, but with the other guys that we added as well. … A number of things impressed me. I’d say the speed that he played with was number one.”
Rookies on their first day of camp a rarely called fast. Their heads are typically swimming with tons of new information as the young players attempt to adjust to their jump from the college game to the NFL. So, for Quinn to comment on the topic not only means he’s blazing fast, but he’s quickly picking things up.
What about Riley’s future role with the Falcons? Not only does he share his alma mater of LSU with second-year linebacker Deion Jones, he also shares a number of characteristics. Quinn made sure to note that Riley was not a facsimile of Jones.
“I’d say there are definitely similarities because the size is similar,” said Quinn. “Deion is a little smaller than Duke. I would say Deion is faster, but as we get into it we’ll find out what they both can do. We’ll be anxious to throw in this mix together.”
Jones and Riley on the field together… That’s a ton of speed and a huge reduction in safe places for ball carriers to hide or slip through Atlanta defense. Both linebackers play around the ball, as was apparent with Jones’ 108 tackles last season, good for second in the NFL among rookies.
If Riley adjusts to the NFL and performs similarly to Jones in Year 1, the middle of Atlanta defense could look impenetrable. Quinn plans to do everything he can to free up the rookie on defense and also looked Friday for how well Riley worked on special teams.
“The way we’re going to try to feature him as a linebacker where we can cover him up and let him try to run sideline to sideline,” said Atlanta’s head coach. “I was anxious to see him with Keith Armstrong today and see if there is a role on special teams with that kind of speed. Last night I sensed he was a guy who’s ready to go for it. In meetings, you can tell when a player has that look. He is a competitor so I think it was the toughness and the on-field play speed that seemed like it would be such a natural fit for how we play.”