Falcons looking for speed, and linebackers who know how to use it


The word seems to dominate the vocabulary of Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn these days. He realizes the next step in improving the roster is increasing team speed, particularly at linebacker.

The Falcons' decision to release oft-injured veteran linebacker Justin Durant took away the one player capable of roaming the field to make plays against the run and in coverage. And as Quinn and his staff proceed with breaking down this year's draft prospects at linebacker, speed has to be at the forefront of their thoughts.

"Part of it is drill-related and part of it is tape," Quinn said. "I think at linebacker, regardless of your speed, you've got to have instincts to find the ball. If you run a 4.5 [-second 40-yard dash] and have to think and wait a count before you can go to your assignment, you're not playing at 4.5. Although the evaluation here is important to say, 'OK, he's got that trait of speed that we want, [but] does the film match that same speed?' Because you ran 4.5 doesn't mean you play 4.5. I'd rather have a guy who is 4.6 and plays 4.6 -- finds the ball and has the instincts.

"For me, it's the change-of-direction stuff that I see. The 40 is awesome because you get to see just straight, raw speed. But it's so rare that that happens, other than outside on the freeway at corner or receiver. But at linebacker, it's how fast you can break to the ball. Are there some deep routes that you have to run with? Yeah. So you want to know what his overall long speed is. But, at the same time, you better have quickness to close."

The linebackers will be on display Sunday as the combine workouts continue. ESPN Insider and former NFL safety Matt Bowen echoed Quinn's sentiment that it won't just be about what 40 time a particular linebacker posts.

"What you really want to focus on with the linebackers is, No. 1, the positional drills," Bowen said. "That's going to expose all your weaknesses right away. If you're tight in the hips, you're not flexible. They're going to see that immediately with the position drills.

"The two timed drills are the short shuttle -- the 5-10-5 -- and the three-cone drill. I actually like the three-cone drills better and this is why: You can practice the 5-10-5. You can master that drill before this test. You can practice the three-cone as well, but the three-cone is more athletic. It's the stop and start, do a little turnaround at the end and explode through. In the 5-10-5, you can master the steps and cheat the drills a little bit at the combine."

In breaking down the linebackers with speed whom the Falcons should focus on, Bowen mentioned a handful of players.

"Myles Jack from UCLA is a rare athlete who played running back in his time at UCLA and moves like a strong safety," Bowen said. "He's got electrical talent, change of direction. Back in the day, he's kind of that 'tweener' that you would say is negative. I don't think so anymore.

"Darron Lee, the linebacker from Ohio State, a huge playmaker. He's a versatile player and a three-down player. With both those guys [Jack and Lee], you can almost play them like a big nickel[back]."

Jack is projected to be a top-10 or even top-five pick, while Lee might be available when the Falcons select at No. 17. Some believe the Falcons should target Alabama's Reggie Ragland in the first round. Ragland had a formal meeting with the Falcons on Saturday night.

"Now, I like Reggie Ragland," Bowen said. "We will find out here [how fast he is]. I mean downhill to the football, he runs. That's the key. He might not test as well as the other guys, but you're talking [about] a physical guy who is going to get downhill and put a helmet on somebody. You can be as fast as you want, but are you physical at the point of attack? Can you outhit someone? If you can't, then Reggie Ragland might be your guy.

"Then you talk about [Notre Dame's] Jaylon Smith. Now Myles Jack is more progressed coming off his knee injury than Smith [torn ACL, LCL]. I think if Jaylon Smith is not injured, he is the top linebacker in this class. Maybe he's somebody the Falcons look at and say, 'He might not be immediately ready to play this season, but we're also trying to build this defense under Dan Quinn.' It might take a few years, but that's a guy you build around the middle of your defense."