It made sense for the Atlanta Falcons to overhaul a defense that ranked 29th in the NFL for points allowed and 26th in yards surrendered in 2021. That’s just what general manager Terry Fontenot did, acquiring low-cost free agents and drafting intriguing prospects with mid-round picks to bolster coordinator Dean Pees’ unit.
No position group on defense underwent more change than inside linebacker. Several new faces have arrived via both the veteran market and collegiate ranks.
Despite the plethora of fresh talent, one writer believes a holdover linebacker is the Falcons “best-kept secret.” This third-year pro is being tipped to stay on the field for all three downs in Pees’ system.
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Unheralded LB To Outplay Newcomers
Mykal Walker is the hidden gem on the Falcons’ roster, according to Bleacher Report’s Gary Davenport. He believes Walker has a stronger case to start than free-agent signings Rashaan Evans and Nick Kwiatkoski: “Walker has eight starts and 80 total stops over two years in Atlanta, and while he’s not as experienced as Evans and Kwiatkoski, his range is better. There’s a very real possibility that Walker opens the season as a three-down linebacker for a defense that will spend a lot of time on the field.”
It’s a bold prediction considering the ties connecting Evans and Kwiatkoski to this regime. The latter is a former starter for the Chicago Bears, a team plundered by the Falcons since ex-general manager Ryan Pace joined Fontenot’s personnel department back in February.
Kwiatkoski spent the last two seasons with the Las Vegas Raiders, but he’s still part of the lengthy list of Falcons’ players and coaches who once spent time with the Bears, per Matt Eurich of CBS Sports:
Then there’s Evans, who was drafted in the first round by the Tennessee Titans back in 2018. He spent two seasons at the heart of a defense called by Pees.
Evans’ experience with Pees outstrips what Walker knows about the system. The latter started just two games last season, but Walker parlayed his limited playing time into 35 total tackles, three pass breakups, one interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Walker returned his sole theft 66 yards for a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers in Week 14:
There’s no denying Walker’s flair for the big play, but his scheme fit for what Pees is trying to do remains a question.
Is Walker Right for 3-4?
Walker tips the scales at 6’3″ and 230 pounds, but those aren’t the optimum physical dimensions for what the Falcons are building on defense. Pees favors the 3-4, a front usually built upon size, particularly at the heart of the front seven.
Bulky inside linebackers are often a must in 3-4 schemes because they are sometimes required to take on guards left uncovered by the three-man line. Bigger linebackers able to play downhill in the running game are required to make this setup work.
That’s what the Falcons have in 6’2″, 242-pounder Kwiatkoski, along with this year’s second-round pick, Troy Andersen. He’s 6’3″ and 243 pounds and plays like a naturally aggressive run stuffer.
Pees needs at least one thumper in the middle of the linebacker corps if he’s going to make his defense work. He can try and cover up linebackers, the way he did for undersized Foyesade Oluokun, who led the league with 192 tackles last season.
Oluokun thrived in year one of Pees calling the plays. Now, the veteran coordinator doesn’t have to match his scheme to so much ill-suited personnel. It’s why the Falcons are expecting better results from the defense this season.
Walker will help, thanks to his ability to make plays in coverage, but that’s an area where both Evans and Andersen are also strong, per PFF College:
It’s more likely Pees chooses the two starters for his base defense from the trio of Andersen, Evans and Kwiatkoski, leaving Walker to continue in a sub-package role.