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Falcons have good problem at linebacker, with more speed, talent

As the Atlanta Falcons begin OTAs on Tuesday, coach Dan Quinn gets to tinker with different looks on defense, including at linebacker.

Quinn liked what he saw last year with Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Deion Jones manning the middle and fellow rookie De'Vondre Campbell playing the weak-side "Will" linebacker role. With Jones and Campbell now in their second years, the Falcons added third-round pick Duke Riley to the mix. Quinn said Riley will begin as a "Will" linebacker.

So what will happen to Campbell?

"Right now, he's still at the Will, so he's in the same role," Quinn said. "And in our nickel package, that's where he will be a good bit of the time."

When three linebackers are on the field, Campbell is expected to play the strongside linebacker spot. It shouldn't be too difficult of an adjustment, considering the Falcons often played fronts where the Will linebacker was on the line of scrimmage. The "Sam" linebacker lines up over on the tight end's side, and Campbell is a guy with the reputation for covering tight ends. He'll have to play strong at the point of attack against the run. Plus, the 6-foot-4, 232-pound Campbell has the length to line up off the edge.

"The roles will be familiar, the ones when we try him some at Sam [strongside] linebacker, which we haven't done yet," Quinn said of Campbell. "It will be different, but not so far in for him. The harder things are playing behind the ball at Will. He'll still have the same jobs that he has now in our nickel defenses."

Campbell showed signs of promise last year despite seeing his growth stunted by a high ankle sprain. His reaction time could have been better in certain situations, but that was part of rookie growing pains.

So, what's the next step in Campbell's development?

"Blitzing," Quinn said. "A blitzing mentality, for sure. That's one for all the linebackers. We're going to make a big push on that. As blitzers, can we be more physical? Can we disrupt more?

"And then for [Campbell], the next space of going to be a cover guy against a tight end. When you're trying to make improvement and you're already doing something at a good level, to take it to a great level, man, does it take a lot of work. When you're already good at something, that's where the real work comes in. That's obviously a challenge that we're throwing to lots of guys."

With Campbell's length, speed and ability to cover tight ends, one would think he'd stay on the field in nickel situations, particularly with tight ends such as Greg Olsen of Carolina and rookie O.J. Howard of Tampa Bay in the NFC South. But Quinn said that's not necessarily a given, with the rookie Riley possessing speed and showing good instincts and coverage ability at LSU. Riley and Jones have a natural feel for each other, having played together in college. And who knows, there might be instances where Riley and Campbell make up the nickel combo.

"I'll basically just open it up to see who can do it the best," Quinn said. "That's what I'm looking to see between 'Dre and Debo [Jones] and Duke, and how does everybody fit, and how do we play them all. All of the guys have unique stuff, and it's our jobs to feature that in the best way. I'm pumped all three are here, and we're going to find lots of ways to utilize them."

Here are five other things to watch at OTAs:

* The right guard battle with Wes Schweitzer, Ben Garland and rookie Sean Harlow in the mix. Quinn has raved about how Schweitzer has gone after it this offseason after being inactive for every game as a rookie. The Falcons need a new starter with Chris Chester retiring.

* This will be the first look at how new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian runs the offense after taking over for Kyle Shanahan. Multiple players said the offense has not changed. Of course, Sarkisian will try to put some of his own identity on the offense here and there, but probably nothing too dramatic.

* Dontari Poe was the team's big free-agent acquisition this offseason. The defensive tackle's contract includes a $500,000 workout bonus based on meeting an undisclosed weight during four separate weigh-ins. The first isn't until the start of mandatory minicamp June 13, but this week's open practice Thursday should offer a glimpse of where Poe stands. The 6-foot-3 Poe said he was 340 pounds upon signing.

* When guys are practicing in shorts, everybody looks good. It will be interesting to see who catches the ball well and runs good routes at wide receiver, especially with the absence of Julio Jones (foot surgery) allowing more opportunities for others. The Falcons know what they have in speedy Taylor Gabriel. And Justin Hardy continues to impress, as Mohamed Sanu recently noted. Now maybe Andre Roberts, Nick Williams or Devin Fuller can catch the eye of the coaches to fill that fifth receiver role left by Aldrick Robinson.

* Everyone seems excited about fifth-round pick Damontae Kazee, the defensive back from San Diego State. He was a ballhawk in college and will get a look at both free safety and nickelback. "Hopefully I'll get in the lineup, but I don't want to talk about it right now," Kazee said. "Most of all, I need to get these plays down."