Last season, Atlanta Falcons starting linebackers Foye Oluokun and Deion Jones combined for over 300 tackles. With Oluokun off to Jacksonville and Jones likely done in Atlanta, the team is faced with lots of uncertainty at the position behind free agent addition Rashaan Evans.
There's third-year pro Mykal Walker, who seems poised for a breakout season but doesn't have a defined role quite yet. Similarly, 2022 second-rounder Troy Andersen figures to play, but due to his relative inexperience to full-time play at linebacker, is expected to have a larger role in 2023.
Earlier this offseason, the Falcons added veteran linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who started 20 games from 2019 to 2020. There's also the group of undrafted players just trying to stick, be it with the linebackers or on special teams; this list is headlined by second-year pro Dorian Etheridge and rookie Nate Landman.
One potential name the Falcons can add to the group is USFL linebacker Donald Payne, who led the league in tackles while starring for the Houston Gamblers. According to Pro Football Network, Payne is one of the USFL players most worth signing.
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Donald Payne is the only player on this list who’s actually started a game in the NFL. Payne appeared in 30 games for the Jaguars from 2017-19, primarily serving as a special teamer. He started five contests for Jacksonville in 2019 before spending time with Washington, Miami, and San Francisco over the next two years.
Tackles aren’t everything, but Payne seems to have a nose for the ball. He led the USFL with 117 tackles, while the second-place finisher had only 75. That’s the same gap between No. 2 and No. 18 on the USFL tackle leaderboards. - PFN's Dallas Robinson
At 5-11, 217 pounds, Payne doesn't fit the bill that the Falcons' new regime has leaned towards at the position, with Kwiatkoski (242), Andersen (235) and Evans (232) all out-classing him in the weight department.
However, Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees was on the Tennessee Titans' staff when they selected linebacker David Long, a 5-11, 227-pounder who has grown into a quality player. So, while Payne's height may not be a dealbreaker, the fact remains that he's on the lighter side of what Atlanta's past moves imply they prefer.
Still, the Falcons are in need of playmakers, and perhaps Payne, with his NFL experience and football instincts, is worth the "gamble."