Speed at linebacker an offseason priority for Falcons

Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn has toned down the "fast and physical" talk that dominated his dialogue after taking over the team.

Quinn's mindset, however, hasn't changed one bit as he tries to establish his style of defense. And a major part of the retooling effort is improving team speed, particularly at linebacker.

"We certainly want to find ways to see our speed and tackling at linebacker (improve)," Quinn said.

His reference was to both free agency and the draft. Quinn caught a glimpse of what type of speed some of the draft prospects possess during last week's Senior Bowl.

"I haven't dug in all the way with the group, but I have a real clear vision of what I'm looking for," Quinn said. "It's the space tackling. In college football right now, there are so many spread offenses. So space and tackling, that's where so much of the game is.

"It's not like the fullback dive and you're going to see how you can crush a guy. It's the deep routes that happen, the speed, the screen plays. For a linebacker, tackling in space is huge because it happens on third down, it happens on special teams, it happens so many times in the pass game. From a tackling standpoint, that's what I'm looking for the most: space tackling. That's where you can feel a guy's speed, and not how quickly I can get to that hole from four yards away. That's what I'm looking for when I'm evaluating the linebackers."

Alabama's Reggie Ragland can run and is physical, so he's a first-round talent who will be on most teams' radar throughout the draft process. The 6-foot-2, 252-pound Ragland didn't talk formally with the Falcons at the Senior Bowl.

Strictly from a speed perspective, LSU's Deion Jones drew rave reviews from coaches and scouts during the first few days of Senior Bowl practices. Jones had six tackles in the South's 27-16 win over the North this past Saturday.

"I guess it's just a part of my game," Jones said of his speed. "I like playing fast. I like to get after it. That's just part of my nature, man."

Jones had some casual conversations with the Falcons at the Senior Bowl, as he did with a number of teams. The projected third-rounder was asked about the possibility of being drafted by Atlanta.

"Being from New Orleans, it would be hard for my daddy to suck that up because he's a die-hard Saints fan," Jones said. "I think he would get used to it. I know the Falcons have good players and I know they compete."

The 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound Jones was asked what he expected to run in the 40-yard dash at the combine.

"I don't know yet," he said. "About 4.4."

Another linebacker the Falcons have their eye on from the Senior Bowl is Kentucky's Josh Forrest (6-foot-3, 255 pounds), who had three tackles for the South team. The former wide receiver, who played hybrid linebacker/safety as a freshman, has the kind of length Quinn looks for in a player to go with the speed.

Some of the faster linebackers who declared as underclassmen include Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith, UCLA's Myles Jack and Ohio State's Darron Lee. Smith and Jack are coming off major knee surgeries.

ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. projects Jack, Ragland, and Smith to be top-20 picks, but Smith's recovery from ACL and MCL tears in his left knee has his status for the start of the 2016 season in doubt.

The Falcons need speedy linebackers ready to come in and contribute immediately. Veteran Justin Durant is probably the best and fastest linebacker on the team right now but he has dealt with too many nagging injuries.