FLOWERY BRANCH — It’s been four long years for Falcons linebacker Robert James.
He was drafted by the team in the fifth round of the NFL draft in 2008 and took the long and bumpy road, one that included a four-game suspension, to open the 2012 season on the 53-man active roster.
James beat out Spencer Adkins for the final linebacker spot and likely will run down the field on special teams when the Falcons face the Chiefs in the season opener at 1 p.m. Sunday in Kansas City.
“I’m happy that they kept me around and let me develop,” James said. “I feel like the practice squad helped me out as a linebacker and a player.”
Adkins started for the Falcons against the New York Giants in the wild-card playoff game last season.
“In the end that was a really close battle,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It came down to the very end. Spencer had done some nice things for us here. He was respected here. It came down to a numbers situation between the two.”
With the Falcons keeping six defensive ends, they had space for only five linebackers.
James was placed on injured reserve his first season and was on the practice squad for most of 2009 and 2010, although he was placed on the active roster for the final game of 2009.
After more time on the practice squad last season, he was on the active roster for the regular-season finale and the playoff game.
James is a run-and-hit linebacker, who had to develop his ability to shed blockers. With better speed and quickness he can cover more ground than Adkins and was more flexible in pass coverage.
“He had a real nice and aggressive preseason,” Dimitroff said. “He showed the urgent athleticism that we are looking for that can help us both on [special] teams as well as potentially in [nickel] defense.”
He continued to grind away when the Falcons kept placing him on the practice squad.
“I feel that I’m more well-rounded as a player,” James said. “I can take on linemen now. I can be dependable, and they can count on me.”
James thought his career might be over in 2010. After serving a four-game suspension under the NFL’s substance-abuse policy he was waived by the Falcons. He cleared waivers Oct. 5 and was re-signed to the practice squad Oct. 6.
“It was tough, but I never did think it would not work out for me because this is my dream,” James said. “It was just tough not playing.”
Over the past four seasons, James could only watch as former Arizona State teammates such as cornerback Troy Nolan [Houston, Miami], running back Ryan Torain [Denver, Washington], cornerback Justin Tryon [Washington, Indianapolis and New York Giants] and safety Josh Barrett [Denver, New England] were playing in the NFL and are now close to earning their NFLPA pensions.
But now, he’ll get his chance to help the Falcons.
“I want to make a mark on special teams,” James said. “I just have to be ready for any roles on defense.”
With the Falcons carrying only five linebackers, he’ll have to back up all three positions, along with Mike Peterson.
“I’m going to have to get in that playbook and know what’s going on,” James said.
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