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Finding the Fits: Falcons look fierce with ex-LSU standout Deion Jones
'Run and hit' linebacker with incredible speed is well-suited to Dan Quinn's scheme
by Rob Rang The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com Monday, Jun 06, 2016 • 5 min read
(This is part of a series -- Finding the Fits -- in which NFLDraftScout.com will review the more intriguing picks made during the 2016 NFL Draft. The goal is to identify one relatively unheralded player per team who appears to be a good schematic fit and, therefore, more likely to be a surprise contributor early in his pro career.)
Atlanta's best fit: LB Deion Jones, LSU, No. 52 overall
After a swift drop from the 2013 conference championship game to barely escaping the NFC East cellar over his final two years in town, the Atlanta Falcons replaced head coach Mike Smith with former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, hoping for an immediate resurgence.
The transformation did not come as quickly as hoped with Quinn at the helm. Though the offense responded with a healthy Julio Jones and emergence of running back Devonta Freeman, the Falcons' defense took yet another step back, allowing an NFL-worst 20 rushing touchdowns in 2015. Despite drafting flashy edge rusher Vic Beasley in the first round a year ago, Atlanta sacked opposing quarterbacks just 19 times in 2015, also dead last in the league.
Another year with Quinn -- a former defensive line coach -- working with Beasley, Grady Jarrett and former top-40 picks Marcus Spears, Adrian Clayborn and Ra'Shede Hageman should have the Falcons defensive line improving. The bigger area of concern for the Falcons was the lack of speed and explosiveness in the back seven, something that Jones and "surprising" first-round safety Keanu Neal should correct.
Lacking elite size and playing behind an assembly line of NFL linebackers at LSU, Jones only emerged as a full-time starter as a senior. It didn't take him long to go from a question mark to an exclamation point for the Tigers, however, earning defensive MVP honors after leading the team with 100 tackles, including 13.5 for loss, five sacks and two interceptions.
The Falcons see Deion Jones as a three-down linebacker. USATSI
The 6-foot-1, 222-pound Jones followed up his splashy senior season by turning heads at the combine, checking in with a swift 4.59-second time in the 40-yard dash. He really left scouts wowed a few weeks later at LSU's Pro Day, wowing with an eye-popping 4.38 seconds in the pre-draft's most popular event, as well as registering a 35.5-inch vertical jump and an impressive 18 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench press, quickly establishing himself as one of the hottest names in the class as the draft approached.
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His former head coach, Les Miles, certainly recognized what an elite athlete Jones is, offering strong praise after the LSU Pro Day.
"Not a lot of linebackers in history will run like that," Miles said. "That guy may be the fastest linebacker that I personally have been around that had any size to him at all. He's absolutely the first. That fits into the NFL game as a guy that can move and make plays and has ball skills. He's going to fit right into the NFL game."
Jones may be an easy fit in the NFL. He's an especially clean fit in Quinn's scheme at weakside linebacker -- a position where the coach has generally prioritized speed over size. Jones is not just a plug-and-play option on the outside, by the way. An alert and instinctive defender, Jones possesses the awareness to slide inside to middle linebacker during passing downs, as well.
"For Deion Jones, first off, the run-and-hit factor is totally alive," Quinn said after his club made Jones its second of just six picks this year. "He's an all-downs linebacker for us. Match-up, running backs, tight ends. Now, the three-deep (zone) that we play, the ability to close and tackle in space is critical to playing inside 'backer in this spot."
"When you're playing at linebacker and you're playing in this much three-deep (zone) and you're playing in space, you'd better have the ability to close and get there with some nasty demeanor, and he certainly fits that."
It is perhaps fitting that Jones replaced Kwon Alexander at LSU. Alexander, a 2015 fourth-round pick and rookie standout for the division rival Buccaneers in 2015, recorded 93 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions a year ago.
Don't be surprised if Jones posts similar numbers for Quinn and the Falcons in 2016.
Other thoughts on the Falcons' 2016 draft class:
The selection of Neal in the first round will be panned by some but adding an intimidating hitter to pair with silky smooth corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford was arguably Atlanta's top priority after the Falcons released former Pro Bowler William Moore in February. Quinn, of course, watched the huge impact that All-Pro strong safety Kam Chancellor made in Seattle and knows Neal better than most after helping recruit him to Gainesville while he served as defensive coordinator there.
The six-foot, 211-pound Neal is not as big as Chancellor (6-3, 225) but offers similar closing speed and apparent disdain for human safety, ranking as arguably the most explosive hitter in the 2016 draft. Like Chancellor, Neal is effective in coverage because of his instincts and knack for making big plays in big moments. He "only" recorded four interceptions at Florida but was drafted by Atlanta more to operate as a fourth linebacker against the run-heavy attacks in the NFC South, especially division champion Carolina.
Besides straight-line speed and explosive hitting ability, Jones and Neal share terrific anticipation of where the football is going, despite their relatively limited action on the field. Fourth-round pick De'Vondre Campbell, on the other hand, remains relatively raw in this regard -- but what an athlete. The 6-4, 232-pound Campbell was clocked at 4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash and this speed translates onto the field well, where the former Gophers' standout routinely tracked down running backs and pass-catchers down from behind. Campbell, a JUCO transfer, is not likely to provide the immediate impact potential that Jones offers but he should instantly upgrade Atlanta's special teams coverage units and is an ideal developmental prospect in Bradley's fast-flowing scheme.
Atlanta's 2016 draft class:
1st Round, No. 17 overall: S Keanu Neal, Florida
2ndRound, No. 52 overall: LB Deion Jones, LSU
3rd Round, No. 81 overall: TE Austin Hooper, Stanford
4th Round, No. 115 overall: LB De'Vondre Campbell, Minnesota
6th Round, No. 195 overall: OG Wes Schweitzer, San Jose State
7th Round, No. 238 overall: WR Devin Fuller, UCLA
Key Undrafted Free Agents Signed:
DT Cory Johnson, Kentucky
CB David Mims II, Texas State
TE/WR Joshua Perkins, Washington
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