When Falcons linebacker Deion Jones walked out of his massage on April 28 – which also happened to be Day 2 of the 2017 NFL Draft — he noticed his phone was buzzing off the hook.
The incoming call was from his former LSU teammate, Duke Riley.
Jones answered to Riley shouting, “I’m coming to Atlanta!”
And that he was, as the Falcons made Riley the No. 75 overall pick.
The two Louisiana natives have taken similar paths to the NFL. After growing up in the Westbank of suburban New Orleans, they both went on to star at LSU – at the same position, no less. Riley took over as the Tigers’ starting middle linebacker after Jones was drafted in the second round – 52nd overall – of the 2016 draft.
And much like he did in Baton Rouge, Jones is ready to continue mentoring Riley. And there’s plenty to work with. In his final season with the Tigers, the 6-foot, 227-pound Riley tallied 144 tackles – including nine for losses.
Jones and Riley have different strengths, but both possess what Dan Quinn is looking for most in his linebackers: Speed.
“I’d say there are definitely similarities because the size is similar,” Quinn said of the similarities between Jones and Riley. “Deion is a little smaller than Duke. I would say Deion is faster, but as we get into it we’ll find out what they both can do. We’ll be anxious to throw in this mix together. Our linebackers are going to be able to run. That showed today not just with him, but with the other guys that we added as well.”
Jones’ first message to Riley: Enjoy the moment, but get ready to go to work.
And Riley is in an enviable spot. He’ll not only be guided by one of his closest friends, but by one of the NFL’s best rookies in 2016. Jones led all rookies in tackles last season, even earning a spot in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Success didn’t happen right away for Jones, though. It took the 6-foot-1, 222-pound linebacker months to adjust to the game at the pro level – a lesson he’s ready to share with Riley.
Jones admitted the biggest challenge for him in his transition from college to professional football was the importance of establishing a personal routine.
“The biggest lesson I learned [in my rookie year] was finding a routine during the week,” Jones said. “Recovery, studying, all of that. Once you set that routine, it’s pretty much [about] keeping to it.”
Once Jones found his rhythm during the week, it immediately translated to his game day performance.
Following Atlanta’s bye week in Week 11, things really started to click for the 22-year-old. He found himself making calls at the defensive line without any hesitation and a louder, more confident voice.
Atlanta’s defense benefited exponentially from Jones’ elevated level of play as the season went on. Following the bye week, the Falcons went on to win five of their last six regular-season games, in large part due to their defensive performance. During that time span Jones recorded 44 of his 106 total tackles.
Also during those five wins, Quinn’s defense surrendered only 18.8 points per game.
Riley said he watched Jones closely last year, and the thought of getting to play with him again for the foreseeable future is a surreal feeling.
“I’m so excited just because I know how much respect Debo has for himself, his teammates and for the game,” Riley said. “Just to be next to a guy like that and knowing that I’m going to be with him again is the best feeling in the world man.”