- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Atlanta Falcons reporter
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The 5-foot-11, 234-pound Akunne anticipated going undrafted, but he wasn't exactly sure which team would be interested in him as a free agent. Ulbrich brought clarity to the situation.
"He was saying that they needed linebackers, and he said that he thought I could come help bring the defense back to where it needs to be," said Akunne, who signed with the Falcons. "I think it's a good opportunity for me to come in and show them I can help them out. I'm just excited to get this chance."
The Falcons filled defensive needs in the draft, just not at inside linebacker. They showed interest in players such as UCLA's Eric Kendricks (Vikings), TCU's Paul Dawson (Bengals) and Miami's Denzel Perryman (Chargers) throughout the draft process. However, nothing ever materialized.
"We feel like we've continued to focus on that through free agency, and we definitely looked at it in the draft," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said of the inside linebacker spots. "Sometimes it's the way the draft falls, as you can imagine. There were certain parts of the linebacker setup that maybe there weren't as many linebackers out there that we thought were fitting what we were looking for at certain spots.
"We think we have a nice, evolving linebacker group here with the additions of what we did in free agency. And we have a damn good coach in Jeff Ulbrich."
The continued development of Paul Worrilow as a workhorse and leader makes the Falcons more comfortable about what they have, at least at middle linebacker. Worrilow has slimmed down to 235 pounds and his relentless work ethic has caught the attention of the coaches.
"He's another player when I think of grit, I think of Paul Worrilow and the toughness, the attitude," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "He might as well be part of the coaching staff. When I come here in the morning, he's just right about to walk into the door at the same time. I love his attitude. I love his style, and I can't wait to get started with him. As a football player, you love all the traits about him. ... He's off to a great start. He really is."
Remember, Worrilow came to the Falcons two years ago as an undrafted signee out of Delaware. Since then, he's started 28 games and led the team in tackles each of the last two seasons.
Could Akunne be the next Worrilow? That's what he's aiming to be. The former high school offensive tackle led Conference USA with 108 tackles last season. He finished his career with 308 tackles and 23 tackles for loss.
Akunne said he talked to the Falcons about playing the "Mike" or "Will," the inside linebacker spots in their scheme.
"I think my biggest assets as a player are my intelligence and my toughness," Akunne said. "I'm not afraid to hit somebody anywhere -- defense, special teams. I just want to hit somebody."
Akunne needs to make a strong impression during rookie minicamp. He leaves for Atlanta on Thursday and then has to rush back to school after the three-day minicamp for final exams.
He hopes to ace his test with the Falcons first.
"I really wasn't bothered about not getting drafted," Akunne said. "I just want an opportunity, however I can get it."
The Falcons struck gold with Paul Worrilow and hope they can find another, perhaps in North Texas' Derek Akunne.