The Atlanta Falcons struck familiar themes when they again focused on defense high in the NFL draft and again selected a player from Louisiana State on Friday night.
The Falcons traded down, giving away their second-round pick, to select LSU linebacker Duke Riley in the third round. One year ago, the Falcons took LSU linebacker Deion Jones in the second round. In 2015, Atlanta picked LSU cornerback Jalen Collins in the second round.
The reliance on LSU defensive players is no mystery to Riley.
“They love the background of the players, they love our work ethic, they love linebackers who can run,” Riley said in a telephone interview.
Jones and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell were among four rookies to start on defense in Atlanta’s 2016 Super Bowl season.
Riley said being able to again play with Jones “is just the best feeling in the world.”
The selection of Riley, who will play inside linebacker, marked the third straight year the Falcons have drafted defensive players with their first two picks. The trend has mirrored the tenure of coach Dan Quinn, the former Seattle defensive coordinator who said he’s happy with the talent he now has at linebacker.
“The speed, the athleticism, the way we want to attack, we are very excited about that group,” Quinn said.
The Falcons traded their second-round pick to Buffalo for the No. 75 overall pick used to pick Riley and two picks in the fifth round on Saturday.
It was Atlanta’s second trade of the draft. General manager Thomas Dimitroff traded up in the first round to select UCLA defensive end Takkarist McKinley on Thursday night, sending third- and seventh-round picks to Seattle.
Riley led LSU with 93 tackles as a senior, including nine for losses. He had an interception.
Falcons punter Matt Bosher announced the selection of Riley at the draft in Philadelphia but erred by identifying the linebacker’s school as Duke.
The Falcons arranged for a private jet to take McKinley and some of his family members from Philadelphia to Atlanta on Friday. He toured the team’s practice facility and talked with a few Falcons players, including former UCLA teammate Devin Fuller, a wide receiver.
Dimitroff and Quinn were won over by McKinley’s hustle, especially when chasing quarterbacks.
Quinn said he likes “the grit that he has displayed, not only as a ballplayer but as a young man coming up.
McKinley still carried the large framed photo of his late grandmother, Myrtle Collins, at the Falcons complex that he took with him to the stage of the NFL draft on Thursday night.
“I never knew my father at all,” he said Friday. “My mom left my life when I was about 5 years old, did drugs and stuff like that. I was raised with my grandmother. She basically paid the bills by collecting water bottles and cans. Those were worth like 5 or 10 cents. That’s a lot of bottles and cans to collect.
“My job as a kid was just bringing in bottles. I didn’t know how big it was. I didn’t realize I was keeping a roof over our heads.”
McKinley said his grandmother died about 30 seconds after he made a promise to her he would play Division I football and in the NFL.
McKinley was emotional at the draft as he held the photo and talked about his grandmother. Some of those emotions were expressed with expletives.
“That was just pure relief, my emotions,” McKinley said Friday. “I’ve been through a lot in my life and like I said that promise to me means everything, just to be able to complete it.”
When listing family members with him at the Falcons’ facility, McKinley said “my grandmother is here in spirit and I brought her with me.
“She’s somebody who never gave up. For me, that’s how I play on the field, never give up. Run to the ball. It’s not hard to do. If the quarterback scrambles, scramble with him. If it’s a screen pass, who knows? Chase it down. It all starts with my grandmother and that’s how I play.”