Countdown to Camp: A look at the linebackers

060612 FLOWERY BRANCH :  Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon fires up teammates during warmups for team practice at Flowery Branch on Wednesday, June 6, 2012.  CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

060612 FLOWERY BRANCH : Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon fires up teammates during warmups for team practice at Flowery Branch on Wednesday, June 6, 2012. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Birdland – With the opening of the Falcons‘ training camp just more than a week away, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will take a look at some key positions every day through July 26th. Today we examine the linebackers.

Here’s a look at the linebackers:

THE REALLY BIG QUESTION: Can Lofa Tatupu return to Pro Bowl form and win the middle linebacker spot?

Who will be the Falcons' three starting linebackers in 2012?

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The Falcons elected to part ways with middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who led the team in tackles in each of the past three seasons.

Lofa Tatupu, a three-time Pro Bowler,  and Akeen Dent, a second-year player from Atlanta and Georgia, will battle to replace Lofton.

Tatupu, 29, didn’t play in 2011 after spending six seasons with Seattle. He contemplated retirement, but elected to give it another try with the Falcons.

It would be a major boost to the unit if Tatupu can return to the form of his early days in Seattle, when he made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.

Dent wants to take a low key approach to the competition.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be what’s best for the Atlanta Falcons and not for Akeem Dent or not for Lofa Tatupu,” Dent said. “It’s going to be what’s best for the team. We’ll have two guys that are going to be able to go out and play football at any point in the season.”

060612 FLOWERY BRANCH :  Falcons linebacker Lofa Tatupu stretches for team practice at Flowery Branch on Wednesday, June 6, 2012.  CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

060612 FLOWERY BRANCH : Falcons linebacker Lofa Tatupu stretches for team practice at Flowery Branch on Wednesday, June 6, 2012. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Weakside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who’s set to enter his third season, is expected to continue to improve and could attract Pro Bowl attention.

Strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas has been out for the offseason with a foot injury. He battled a knee injury and toe early during last season. Spencer Adkins started for him in the wild-card playoff game against the Giants.

Robert James, a fifth-round pick in 2008, is a speedy linebacker who might help in pass coverage and provide some depth.

FIVE GOALS FOR THE LINEBACKERS IN 2012

  1. Stop the run.
  2. Play much better in pass coverage.
  3. Make more impact plays.
  4. Get sacks when called on to blitz.
  5. Support the special teams.

Here’s a look at the linebackers:

Sean Weatherspoon: He is coming off a breakthrough season in which he had 127 tackles, four sacks, eight passes defensed and one fumble recovery. The Falcons will take it if half of those eight passes defensed were turned into interceptions. He’ll be featured in the new scheme and appears headed for stardom.

Lofa Tatupu: He started all 16 games in 2010 after playing only five games in 2009 with pectoral and hamstring injuries. He has insisted that he was healthy enough to play in 2011.

Stephen Nicholas: He will be trying to rebound from a string of injuries. He’s one of the teams most efficient tacklers.

Akeem Dent: He was a star on special teams last season and will get his chance to start.

Spencer Adkins: He got his first career start in the playoffs.

Robert James: He received a close look during minicamp.

Rico Council: He was named the Ohio Valley Conference preseason co-defensive player of the year. In 2011, he had a team-high 87 tackles (49 solo) with 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one interception, 11 passes defensed, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.

Max Gruder: An undrafted rookie, who led Pittsburgh in tackles with 116 in 2011. He also had 8.5 tackles for losses.

Jerrell Harris: He played some strongside and weakside linebacker for the Crimson Tide. He never lived up to his recruiting hype and was suspended for six games as a sophomore for allegedly receiving a laptop from a businessman, a secondary NCAA violation.

Matt Hansen: Recently announced on twitter that he underwent knee surgery after  minicamp.

Pat Schiller: He amassed 239 tackles in his four-year career at Northern Illinois. He had 19 tackles for loss, three sacks and eight passes defensed.

Date, Practice Times (public availability)

Thursday, July 26 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)

Friday, July 27 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)

Saturday, July 28 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05p.m. (open to the public)

Sunday, July 29 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Monday, July 30 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Tuesday, July 31 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Wednesday, August 1 Players’ Day Off

Thursday, August 2 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Friday, August 3 Practice 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

KIA Motors “Friday Night Lights” at Peachtree Ridge High School

6:45 – 9:10 p.m. (open to the public)

Saturday, August 4 Players’ Day Off

Sunday, August 5 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (open to the public)

Monday, August 6 Walkthrough 11:10 – 11:55 a.m. (closed to the public)

Combined Practice w/ Tennessee Titans

Coahulla Creek High School – Dalton, GA — 4:30 – 7:15 p.m. (open to the public)

Tuesday, August 7 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Wednesday, August 8 Pregame Walkthrough – No Media Availability

Thursday, August 9 Falcons vs. Baltimore Ravens, Georgia Dome, 7:30 p.m.

Friday, August 10 Players’ Day Off

Saturday, August 11 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Sunday, August 12 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (open to the public)

Monday, August 13 Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (closed to the public)

Tuesday, August 14 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 5:50 p.m. (closed to the public)

Wednesday, August 15 Pregame Walkthrough – No Media Availability

Thursday, August 16 Falcons vs. Cincinnati Bengals, Georgia Dome, 8 p.m. – FOX (National Broadcast)

Friday, August 17 Players’ Day Off

Saturday, August 18 Walkthrough 10:40 – 11:25 a.m. (closed to the public)

Practice 3:30 – 6:05 p.m. (closed to the public)

Sunday, August 19 Walkthrough 10:15 – 11:45 a.m. (closed to the public)

–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog

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69 comments Add your comment

Marcus

July 17th, 2012
6:03 am

Worm …. meet early bird. DOL neva rests.

Spoon, do your thang …. I think Beer-man will get his this year as a DE/LB hybrid. For some reason, I think we are another stud SLB away from being beasts on D.

Paddy

July 17th, 2012
6:17 am

DLed……….do the Falcons keep 6 lb’s?

MJC

July 17th, 2012
6:18 am

Good updates and thoughts DOL. I feel that Tatupu is going to take a few weeks to knock off some rust. When he does, I expect that he will get back to it. The blood thirsty animal linebacker will come out. Before the end of the season, TD will be heralded as a genius for bringing him back.

Spoon is the Kingslayer. I have been saying that for some time now. We need a picture of Sean Weatherspoon behind an empty Iron Throne of the NFC South. The ever vigilant Kingslayer’s first target is Mr. 100 million Drew Brees. With a five year lock, Spoon has at least 10 games with the future hall of fame quarterback. Can’t wait to see the results.

Marcus

July 17th, 2012
6:19 am

don’t forget to mention ….. Rico Council balled for the Tennessee State [Blue Bengal] Tigers …. alma mater of HOF DE Richard Dent. Giving props to the HBCUs.

Falcon James

July 17th, 2012
7:35 am

Nice article. I think our LB crew is solid this year.

SeenThisB4

July 17th, 2012
8:02 am

I know I have a biased perspective, but man! Behind Weakherspoon, you guys got nothing at linebacker! Brees is salivating just at the thought of the opportunity of facing that weak lineup.

And Weakherspoon will probably be nursing a torn muscle by the time he faces the $100 million man.

AlanFalcon

July 17th, 2012
8:12 am

SeenThisB4—Here you go again speaking out of the wrong end of you anatomy, c’mon man you got to get it right sometime or maybe that’s just asking to much !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

D. Orlando Ledbetter

July 17th, 2012
8:24 am

Marcus — Thanks for your kind words. When I think of Biermann in the new attack, I’m think he could used like Clay Matthews III. I think he’s more athletic. Sky might be the limit for the Reality Kid.

D. Orlando Ledbetter

July 17th, 2012
8:25 am

Paddy – I think so. Maybe 7 if you have some special teams studs in the group.

SeenThisB4

July 17th, 2012
8:25 am

I’m not wrong this time Alan, your linebacker and dline group aren’t exactly going to cut it. They won’t get any pressure on the QBs, no increase in sacks, they won’t stop quick running backs or TEs crossing the middle. Little pressure will equal another quick exit out of the playoffs, IF YOU GET THAT FAR!!

D. Orlando Ledbetter

July 17th, 2012
8:26 am

MJC – Thanks my friend. I like your concept. Could be a good video.

D. Orlando Ledbetter

July 17th, 2012
8:27 am

SeenThisB4 — You have a Falcons reject on your linebacking corps.

robertussen

July 17th, 2012
8:28 am

i actually, well kind of, agree with seen. we have been strong at lb in the past, but with the loss of lofton and not re-signing mike peterson, i think lb is a weakness for us now. if things look weak in camp, i fully expect them to get peterson back on the roster for one more year. im fine with letting dent and tatupu sling it out for mlb, but the depth is what concerns me. we always have a lb go down at some point in time, and peterson should be there to step in when that time comes.

Rick

July 17th, 2012
8:31 am

Please dont talk about our LB’S “SEEN” until you check yours first (ones you have that are not suspended, and the others stink! Trust me not a strong part of your weak d). Dude I am so tired of you. You are old news man! Sad to see you troll a Falcons blog to talk about the Aints! Catch up or just blow off man we are tired of you. Our LB’ S will be a strength especially when we can let a LB goto the Aints! Go getem birds!

sainthater

July 17th, 2012
8:54 am

SeenThisB4, the bounty will be on Brees this year. That bad shoulder will be on every teams radar and that 100 million dollar contract will hamstring the Aints for years.

NFCCHAMPSLIVEINGA

July 17th, 2012
9:00 am

@Falclown are a joke.., Here’s a quick stat for ya, since 1966( the year your team entered into the NFL) the Falcons have a 46-40 overall record over the Saints. Atlanta owns the Saints, get your facts right. Moreover, even with the recent success of the Saints, since 2006, as most Saints Fans like to reflect on, your franchise is still been. Goes to show ya, Atlanta has been whooping that butt for over 40 years now and it shows!! Go Falcons!!

D'TOWN

July 17th, 2012
9:04 am

“Falclowns are a joke” You got one ring… fine. They paved your way after NO got washed out in the storm and the NFL felt sorry for you. However, one player away (Drew Brees) from putting those bags back over your heads!!! He almost didn’t come back. Keep messing with him and Bobby Hebert will be your QB again.

Mikefalcon63

July 17th, 2012
9:10 am

Falclowns are a joke… The Aints can’t beat anyone without Brees. And they have a worse history than the Falcons. Enough said… Won’t waste time and energy arguing with the ignorant souls of this world.

Spoon is the key to our defense, and will be a beast on defense. Losing Lofton was a blessing in disguise. The fact that we will be starting a guy who did not play last season, or a guy who played special teams last year, is all you need to know about a “drop-off” at the middle linebacker position. Nicholas is solid on the strong side, and arguably could be the best strong side linebacker in the NFC south.

If we could get Kroy Bierman to be a Clay Matthews clone, it would be a fun thing to watch.

[...] Atlanta Journal-Constitution looked at the linebackers as training camp [...]

Redcoat

July 17th, 2012
9:22 am

LBs will continue to be a force, the new scheme will enhance their talents. QB’s of the NFL better be ready for the “impact”! Go Falcons!

[...] Atlanta Journal-Constitution looked at the linebackers as training camp [...]

SeenThisB4

July 17th, 2012
9:39 am

@Falclowns are a joke: Listen up, this is DLed’s blog, so let’s not disparage his good humor. No need for that, focus on the falcan’ts.

The best response to his dig at Lofton, (who by the way still reeks of that red/black sewage stench) is to note that it was Weakerspoon who got juked out of his cleets by Sproles when Brees broke the all time passing record. I don’t even think Lofton was in on that play. And who do you think had coverage on Graham that night? It wasn’t Tatupu or Dent! They had no answer then, they have no answer now. But, of course, that’s just my perspective; they have another, albeit wrong. LOL!

D man

July 17th, 2012
9:43 am

If Tatupa can get back to his pro bowl form, he will be a huge addition to the LB corp. if not, he will still help these young guys excel. I love our team this season. My only worry going into tis year is the new schemes on offense and defense. Other than that, we have the talent to win it all.

Esquire

July 17th, 2012
10:18 am

the limp lilly fleur de lis is missing some key ingredients to have any chance of winning much of anything this season. losing carl nix is going to haunt this team in wheeze getting many more hits and sacks. if wheeze gets hurt the limp lilly fleur de lis has nothing else.

THE FALCONS D WILL DOMINATE THIS SEASON. THE GRITS IS BACK IN THE BLITZ.

Seenthisb4

July 17th, 2012
10:38 am

hi, let me tell you alittle about myself. I am a unemployed loser who sits on his computer all day on the Ajc web site hitting the refresh button so i can be the first to comment on any artical about the falcons that comes out. i am a typical dilusional Saints fan that believes that the saints won the SB without the nfls help. yup i believe we won it fair and square and not because of a flood. if im not on this site, i am cashing in my food stamps. thank you for everyone who works, you pay my rent every month

DJ Sniper

July 17th, 2012
10:43 am

A show of hands as to how many people give a damn about the value of the Saints being higher than the Falcons……..

Yea, that’s what I thought. Not an issue at all.

North FLA Falcon

July 17th, 2012
10:49 am

I am glad we dumped Mike P, he was a bust. Too slow and not worth whatever “leadership” he supposedly provided. This is a young, hungry group with one stud in the lineup. There will be some shuffling around as we figure out what works best. Should be a fun year!

Esquire

July 17th, 2012
10:56 am

Falclowns are a joke…

July 17th, 2012
8:44 am
How many SB rings do the FAILCANTS have? Enough said…
___________________________________________________

actually both teams in the SB get a ring, yes even the loser………. any chance we had to win that game went out the window as soon as Robinson replaced his jewlery with handcuffs

SeenthisB4

July 17th, 2012
11:00 am

I must confess! I am a Falcons LOVER! I cant help but troll this sight as I have no friends and my life is one of shambels and sadness! I sit on my old computer and bang out awful things about the Falcons the greatest team in the NFC South as I know that the AINTS are only months away from making me grab my paper bag. Please accept me in the FALCONS culture I want to be a fan so bad I just dont know how to ask!?

explosive linebackers

July 17th, 2012
11:15 am

If you look at his Roster Photo on AtlantaFalcons.com
– Linebacker Spencer Adkins is one mean looking dude.

Jimmy Crack

July 17th, 2012
11:20 am

Let’s see if Nolan can make some 3-4 magic out of some of these underperforming DEs and perennial backup LBs. Whatever works to get the defense off the field more often.

checkmate

July 17th, 2012
11:21 am

Seen, why are you on here all the time talking about how great the Falcons are waering your Matt Ryan jersey

True ATL Fan

July 17th, 2012
11:30 am

I would much rather read SeenthisB4 everyday then to have to continue to look at these losers that now live in Atlanta after Katrina. You speak of the red/black sewage and ghettoatlanta, everyone knows that New Orleans is an absolute dump. No opinion, pure fact. Buddy cant wait to comment on here which leads me to believe that he is a disgruntled Atlanta fan, which I can understand. Matter of fact “SeenthisB*tchB4″ PLEASE direct all of your comments towards me from here on out. You, Crimson Crush, and whoever else, come on with it.

Esquire

July 17th, 2012
11:31 am

DJ Sniper

July 17th, 2012
10:43 am
A show of hands as to how many people give a damn about the value of the Saints being higher than the Falcons……..

Yea, that’s what I thought. Not an issue at all.

______________________________________________

That pre-suspension Forbes list really doesn’t mean anything and was really stupid to post in the first place…….it’s got Tampa Bay and Carolina ahead of both the Falcons and the the limp lilly fleur de lis

PMC

July 17th, 2012
11:37 am

I’m still a Curtis Lofton fan and I’m still disappointed to see him go. I like Tatupu to start if he returns to form and Dent to be the solid backup he was always drafted to be. Nicholas needs to make more plays in order to keep starting. I’m not sure how Robert James is still on the team and Spencer Atkins is more of a spot duty, special teams kind of player. I’m hoping Nicholas can return to form, but they could upgrade that position in the near future depending on how they want to run the defense.

I like this group in coverage though much better than last year. Lofton is a great tackler but he’s not going to defend the seam well. It is what it is. He’s a good player, but he’s not as good as others on 3rd down.

PMC

July 17th, 2012
11:41 am

My feeling about most of the positon group are that…well yeah it’s a solid squad, but they could absolutely upgrade the talent unless this coaching staff is able to get more out of what they have to work with.

The thing is, last year we could feel very solid about the linebackers, this year, it’s a big question mark after Spoon and the same is true of the safety position. Sometimes they look great, others they look bad.

PMC

July 17th, 2012
11:42 am

I wonder if the tackling is going to be as good or clean against the run in the middle without Lofton.

The police, did that role about as well as anyone.

Rick

July 17th, 2012
12:00 pm

I knew you would come out eventually “seen” we Falcon Fans stick together through good and bad! We neve wore brown sacks over our head. Come now 6 years of winning is not squat man! And please stop talking about your histroy…told you last week that it is about this year and this year only man! No one cares about your old ring. HEHEHEHEHEHE. You AINT clowns are getting you teeth kicked in today!

AGTFan

July 17th, 2012
12:04 pm

I think linebacker is going to be a strength this season. I’m not concerned with who’s going to be the starting three. I see a strong rotation using 4 strong traditional linebackers and several hybrid DE/LBs. I think we’re going to be very pleasantly surprised at just how much our defense actually improves with the new coaching and schemes.

I don’t see any reason to argue with trolls and I find the racist attacks from both sides to be disgusting. Any of the bigots who just have to spew their venom should go back to listening to Rush and stay off of sports blogs.

Falcon James

July 17th, 2012
12:12 pm

Saying Lofton was a Falcon reject is not a fair statement. The fact remains that he is a high quality LB that the Falcons developed but could not hang onto because of cap issues. It has been said time and time again that teams lose to FA, and we lost Lofton because we couldnt hit the number. It is the nature of the business. It would have been nice to keep him, but we have some good people to step in. Tatupu could be the comeback story of the year. All we can do is wait for the season to start.

FalconFANatic

July 17th, 2012
12:18 pm

SeenThisB4–Last year was last year….We have Mike Nolan this year and he seems to be able to make the talent on any roster that he coaching work…I am not worried. The only reason Drew Brees has been able to light the Falcons up every year is because of the vanilla schemes Vangorder liked to call. There is going to be very little sitting back in zone coverage this year. The Falcons are going to attack on every down rather than on just 5 or 6 plays a game like has been in the past. I can honestly say that we will definitely get more pressure on Brees in the coming year and in the past when he is pressured, he tends to turn the ball over…Brent Grimes owns Brees! ITS OUR TIME! GO FALCONS!

FalconFANatic

July 17th, 2012
12:21 pm

Also, we have 3 legitimate corners…..no more targeting the sub par Nickelback the entire game…..Get ready Saints fans, I feel a changing of the guard!

Chub Rock

July 17th, 2012
12:29 pm

I personally don’t think Lofton will be missed at all. The middle linebacker that is more of a 2 down run stopper has been devalued in the NFL with the passing game becoming so prevalent. The Falcons have a problem stopping the pass not the run. I think Dent is a more athletic backer with better range than Lofton and also brings the wood in the run game. Tatupu at 29yrs old is a former Pro Bowler and that’s something we have not had at the MLB position in a while. The guy I am most concerned about is Nicholas. This guy has been injured now for quite a while. Not really impressed with Adkins, he looks the part but does not play like it. Not sure why Robert James is still even allowed on the premises, he appears to really like pies and desserts. I do think Massoqui and/or Biermann could possibly move to rush backer in Nolan’s defense. I noticed Biermann has dropped a few pounds, could signal a different usage in the future.

D. Orlando Ledbetter

July 17th, 2012
1:09 pm

Falclowns are a joke … — And so are you!

D. Orlando Ledbetter

July 17th, 2012
1:13 pm

Can we comment on the Falcons linebackers? Will Spoon make the Pro Bowl? If Nicholas is not healthy is Adkins ready to be starter? The depth looks a little thin? Max Gruder might be a diamond in the rough? To heck with the Saints stuff.

Chub Rock

July 17th, 2012
1:23 pm

D, Max Gruder ran a 4.98 forty at his Pro Day at 235 lbs. Too slow for any LB position IMO. I would slide Debt over to SLB with Tatupu in the middle before I start Adkins but that’s just my opinion.

Chub Rock

July 17th, 2012
1:23 pm

Bucky Badger

July 17th, 2012
1:26 pm

Spoon has breakout year & will be in the Pro Bowl!

Chub Rock

July 17th, 2012
1:42 pm

Just like taking out the garbage.

D. Orlando Ledbetter

July 17th, 2012
2:01 pm

Chub Rock — Ouch!!! That’s slow motion (4.98). That might be the plan. I think they still have Mike Peterson’s phone, too.