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Duke Riley earned a starting job at weakside linebacker as a rookie for the Atlanta Falcons.
Duke Riley earned a starting job at weakside linebacker as a rookie for the Atlanta Falcons.( | The Times-Picayune archive)

Former LSU linebacker Duke Riley earned a starting job for Atlanta in his first NFL game, Falcons coach Dan Quinn announced Friday.

Riley, the LSU team MVP last year, was a third round pick by the Falcons and will start at weakside linebacker in the Falcons’ base package. He will line up alongside former Tiger teammate and middle linebacker Deion Jones when the Falcons play at Chicago Sunday at noon.

In a sense, he outdid his close friend Jones, who didn’t earn the starting job with the Falcons until later in the 2016 season. Jones led all rookies with 108 tackles and helped the Falcons to the Super Bowl.

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ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22: Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) celebrates a Falcons touchdown with quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in the first half of the NFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, GA. The Atlanta Falcons won the game 44-21. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire)


So many things went right for the Atlanta Falcons in 2016. With an offense that led the league by averaging more than 33 points per game, the Falcons ran and threw their way to an NFC championship and a Super Bowl appearance.

Although the Falcons fell short against the New England Patriots, they not only kept the core of their team but added some pieces they hope will take them over the top.

Different Falcons stepped up last year, making it tough to name the 10 best Falcons on the roster. Rookie Takkarist McKinley didn’t make the list. Corners Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant also fell short of the top 10.

Here are the 10 best Falcons on the roster.

  1. S Ricardo Allen

Moving from cornerback to safety, Ricardo Allen played a team-high 1,101 defensive snaps at a high level. He finished the regular season with 90 tackles and two interceptions and added two more during the team’s Super Bowl run. He is the playmaker in the secondary.

  1. DT Dontari Poe

Defensive tackle Dontari Poe wasn’t with the Falcons last year, but he gives the squad a former Pro Bowler who can not only clog the middle but get after the passer if healthy. Poe had a career-low 27 tackles last year with the Kansas City Chiefs. He has a chip on his shoulder and the Falcons hope he translates that anger into prime performances.

  1. DT Grady Jarrett

A person who should benefit from having Poe beside him is Grady Jarrett. He broke out in the Super Bowl, sacking Tom Brady three times. That number equaled the amount of sacks he had in the regular season. Jarrett doubled his tackle total from his rookie season of 2015. His mixture of power and speed should help him improve in his third season.

  1. S Keanu Neal

Every team needs a hard-hitting enforcer. Safety Keanu Neal is that man for the Falcons. He doesn’t mind coming down in the box to help in the run game, but he also roams the secondary well. Neal was second on the team with 106 tackles. He forced five fumbles.

  1. C Alex Mack

There are not many offensive linemen who would be considered on a team’s 10 top players list, much alone a center. Alex Mack was the glue to the Falcons’ offensive line last year and got everything started. He was a key reason why the Falcons averaged 33.8 points per game and 120.5 yards rushing.

Atlanta Falcons' Alex Mack plays against the New England Patriots during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

  1. LB Deion Jones

As a rookie last year, linebacker Deion Jones started 13 games. He led the team in tackles, had three interceptions, and led all linebackers with 11 pass breakups. Jones has shown he can play the run as well as the pass. He is the engine of the defense.

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Everything had been going so right, and now it has all gone wrong. They finally scored a touchdown 57 minutes into the game.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Lets take this quarter by quarter, as we saw fewer and fewer starters the later this terrible, painful, frustrating game went on. There was a lot to be excited about, but we might be getting a little worried.

First Quarter

The most important part of the game with most of the starters in. The defense looked good, but Matt Ryan came out the gate and tossed a pass a bit behind Levine Toilolo who popped it up. He followed it up with another uneven drive, with a lucky drop saving him from an interception, and another football bouncing off of Mohamed Sanu’s hands.

Tevin Coleman looked electric both up the middle and out on the edges. He could definitely be looking at a monster year.

The defense finally gave up some yards late in the first quarter, and Chris Johnson fumbles twice (!).

Deion Jones looked as impressive as he did last year, but I would have hoped for the defensive line to get more pressure on the statuesque Carson Palmer.

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Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

We’ve talked a lot about the pass rush, a (hopefully) improved run defense, and what that might mean for the Falcons’ efforts to stop other teams. The upshot is that we all expect this unit to improve, which would make this Atlanta team even scarier for the rest of the NFL to face.

For the defense to really break the back of opposing offenses, it would help to snag more turnovers, though the team was quite productive in that regard in 2016. Atlanta had a +5 turnover differential in 2017 and managed to recover 14 fumbles after forcing 17, adding 12 interceptions along the way. That’s very solid, but may just be scratching the surface of what this team can do, particularly if they can apply pressure more frequently on opposing quarterbacks.

For the Falcons to cause more turnovers, they’ll need to be even more aggressive in coverage and get in the faces of QBs to try to cause more interceptions. A team with playmakers like Robert AlfordDeion Jones, and now Damontae Kazee should be able to improve on that 12 interception total. As we all know from experiences both positive and crushing, a pick can turn the tide of a game, even if you’re having an off day and getting gouged. Given the obvious talent on this team, I think we’ll see the total rise.

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Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Deion Jones‘ emergence in the back half of the season helped drive the Falcons through the postseason and into the Super Bowl. Jones was a key reason why the Falcons’ pass defense became better over the final stretch of the season. His speed, instincts, and playmaking ability were invaluable to Atlanta last season.

One of his biggest highlights of his rookie season came in the Falcons’ Week 14 game against the Los Angeles Rams. Deion Jones contributed to Jared Goff’s disastrous rookie season with an interception returned for a touchdown in Atlanta’s blowout win.

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Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn inherited a decimated linebacker corps. It was an unenviable position but he certainly made the best of it. In just over two years, he’s undertaken a wholesale conversion of that unit. It’s now full of young, talented players.

2016 draft picks Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell took on a lot of responsibility as rookies last season. Last month the Falcons added another speedy linebacker, Duke Riley. And while it appears Jones’ role at middle linebacker is clear, it’s fair to wonder how the selection of Riley impacts Campbell going forward.

ESPN’s Vaughn McClure just wrote up a great piece on this subject. In short, McClure believes this is a good problem for the Falcons to have. And, of course, Quinn knows exactly what he’s doing.

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