The linebacker corps has been one of the most transitional positions on the entire team since the Dimitroff/Smith era began, especially the outside linebackers. In 2007, the Falcons boasted Keith Brooking at MLB Michael Boley and Demorrio Williams at the outside linebacker spots. When Dimitroff took over as General Manager, he immediately snagged Curtis Lofton from Oklahoma in the second round to be the old-school tackling machine in the middle for some time to come. That’s about where the continuity stops. In an effort to get younger, 2008 saw Brooking’s last year in a Falcons uniform and evidently Michael Boley didn’t mesh well with the new coaching staff because he was allowed to walk into free agency after having a Pro Bowl worthy year in 2007.
They signed Mike Peterson in the 2009 off-season as a free agent linebacker from the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he played for then defensive coordinator Mike Smith for most of his career. Even though he played most of his time at middle linebacker, Peterson would be taking over an outside linebacker position in Atlanta with Lofton manning the middle.
The other position has been mainly Stephen Nicholas’ for some time after finally working his way into a starting role when he was drafted by Rich McKay in the fourth round in 2007. Nicholas started last year all on his own, but took over for 1st round draft pick Sean Weatherspoon when he was injured later in the season. The Falcons have been “developing” several linebacker prospects in Robert James and Spencer Adkins, even though neither have glimpsed the field as linebackers on defense.
James was drafted in 2008 by Dimitroff in the 5th round and has bounced on and off the regular roster and practice squad after having many injury issues and this year was suspended for illegal substances. Spencer Adkins was drafted in the 6th round in the 2009 draft and was admittedly raw and would need time, but possessed a ton of speed and hitting ability that may one day translate at least into rotation duty. Even though Adkins has made the 53 man roster two years in a row, neither has pulled a snap as an outside linebacker on defense, but rather purely on special teams.
Sean Weatherspoon was a popular 1st round pick last year and was roundly considered the best linebacker prospect in the draft. He was off to a fast start and showed a ton of promise until he battled several injury issues towards midseason and was never able to get back up to speed. Obviously, Lofton and Weatherspoon are in the long term plans, but the issue remains on what to do at the other outside linebacker position. The linebacker corps has been good and fairly solid, but definitely not great.
As with the rest of the team, they were pretty good against the run, but have serious issues against the pass. This was no more evident than the last two losses of the season where the Falcons LB’s were torched by Drew Brees on Monday Night Football and the beatdown of the year with eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers putting on a passing clinic like they were at practice.
As mentioned earlier, the linebacking corps has been solid against the run where Curtis Lofton and Mike Peterson could swarm to the ball and use their physicality to bring down the runner. Even that started to show leaks towards the end of the season. That, however, leads perfectly into the next point: why would teams bother running the ball when they can pass up and down the field at will? The LB’s surely weren’t the sole culprits for the passing game because the secondary deserve their share as well, but anytime the Falcons needed a stop on 3rd down, you could guarantee that a running back or tight end would have no problem converting a 3rd and long right over the coverage of Lofton, Peterson, Nicholas, and Weatherspoon.
Lofton’s Achilles heel has always been his coverage skills and even though he has improved because of his dedication, some still believe he remains a 2 down linebacker incapable of standing up against the critical passing downs. Mike Peterson started the year at 34 years old and did a good job early on, but expectedly started to wear down as the season grinded on. Stephen Nicholas has always been extremely athletic and good pass rusher, but has also had his fair share of issues in coverage. Weatherspoon was drafted in part due to his excellent coverage skills and they were on display early on, but after injuries set in he was never the same. The late-season touchdown to TE Jimmy Graham right in front of Spoon to give the Saints the game particularly sticks out. The poor coverage by the LB’s help lead to the Falcons being one of the worst in terms of getting off the field on 3rd downs. The LB’s played a large role in the Falcons being ranked in the bottom half of the league (22nd) in pass defense.
Perhaps one of the most disappointing aspects, and pathetic to be honest, of the LB corps is their lack of pass rush and sacks. The scale of their pressure is beyond anemic. Some will say that their scheme is not conducive for the LB’s blitzing, but even that’s not a good excuse when you examine these numbers. Pretty awful……
Sacks by Linebackers
2008 – 2 (Stephen Nicholas -1; Curtis Lofton – 1)
2009 – 4 (Stephen Nicholas – 3; Mike Peterson – 1)
2010 – 4 (Curtis Lofton -2; Mike Peterson – 1; Sean Weatherspoon – 1)
That’s barely reaching double digits in THREE years by the ENTIRE linebacker corps. So many players from around the league could be used for embarrassment by comparison purposes, but Clay Matthews collared that total by himself as a rookie. Kroy Biermann matched that total all by himself in the same time frame and just started full-time this year. Whether it is the players or the scheme, there are no excuses and this is unacceptable for a team that wants to reach the ultimate goal. Here’s the few options the Falcons have at LB….
This is definitely the easiest option for the immediate future. Nicholas has shown glimpses of his athleticism and has started the last two years at one of the outside linebacker spots with pretty solid results. He has prototypical size at 6’3, 230 and is just 27 years old. Even though he didn’t have a sack this year, he had 78 tackles, 2 pass deflections, and 1 interception. Nicholas by far had the best season in terms of sacks among all LB’s the past 3 years, even if it was only 3. Surprisingly, Nicholas has been one of the most consistent players at outside linebacker. On paper, pairing Nicholas with Lofton and Weatherspoon would give the Falcons one of their fastest and most talented LB corps in quite some time. Seems like a no-brainer, but Nicholas was quoted as talking about how “good the Detroit Lions were with building up there and raved about their defensive outlook with Ndamukong Suh.” Seemed like a very odd statement to make since free agency is so up in the air and struck a little nerve with fans. He then followed it up with this quote: “This free-agent thing is crazy, but Atlanta, they always do the right things,” he said. “Great organization, and we’ll just see what happens. We got a lot of stuff going on with the collective bargaining agreement, and … we have a little time to see what happens.” With seeming greater needs at defensive end and cornerback, letting Nicholas go wouldn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense at this point, but who knows what Dimitroff’s plan is. Does Nicholas have the ultimate bargaining chip in knowing the Falcons need him?
Mike Peterson has been the class of the locker room and an amazing captain and mentor to the younger players, particularly the linebackers. He showed last year that he still had some gas left in the tank, but as the season wore on, his 34 year old body started to show the expected signs of slowing down. Peterson was still a beast in the run game, but his coverage skills were painfully lacking towards the end of the season. He could sign a one or two year deal with the expectation that he would be helping to lead and mentor younger guys to take over, but splitting much more time almost as a backup role. Whether he would do that remains to be seen, but its hard to imagine going another 16 games (or 18) with 35 year old Peterson as the main starter. Robert James and Spencer Adkins may finally get their chance to grab ahold of a starting spot. TD and Coach Smith have been raving about the two since they were drafted. Adkins about having speed to burn with a killer instinct and James with a hitting ability close to William Moore’s. The glowing reviews haven’t translated into any playing time at linebacker though. Both might be tad short at 5’11 with Adkins weighing 242 and James a little light at 220. If Nicholas isn’t resigned, they just might finally get their shot.
Like many other positions, this seems like a highly unlikely scenario, but you never know. If they were going to delve into the free agent market, wouldn’t they just re-sign Nicholas who has been a Falcon since 2007? You never do know though….
Chad Greenway – 6’2 – 242 – Age: 28 – Minnesota
One of the only pure 4-3 outside linebackers on the market. Not a sack machine, but one of the all-around best 4-3 OLBs in the league and certainly as a free agent. Had 109 tackles, 3 pass defenses, but only 1 sack. His high sack total came in 2008 with 5.5. May have more tackles and better coverage skills, but does his lack of pass rush make up for it?
Rocky McIntosh – 6’2 – 239 – Age: 28 – Washington
Played inside linebacker for the Redskins after they changed over to the 3-4 and didn’t have a great adjustment. Could play OLB in a 4-3 and is also a superb tackler and even collared 2 sacks as an ILB in a 3-4. Had 3 sacks in 2007, 2 in 2008 before recording zero in 2009. Would another scheme change back to a 4-3 make sense for signing a new free agent?
Thomas Davis – 6’0 – 240 – Age: 27 – Carolina
One of the most favorite Bulldogs of all time would make a ton of Georgia fans happy with a return to the Peach State. Known for his bruising hits and fantastic athleticism, Davis converted to OLB after playing safety in college. Played under none other than Brian Van Gorder at UGA, but seems unlikely the Falcons would shell out dough for a player with two knee injuries in two years.
Other notable free agent OLB’s: James Anderson, Kirk Morrison, Ernie Sims, Stephen Cooper, Tavares Gooden among many others.
The Falcons could elect to go with an outside for the second year in a row after selecting Sean Weatherspoon in the first round last year. Also seems somewhat unlikely the Falcons would be willing to spend two 1st round draft picks on the same position in consecutive years, not to mention the fact that they would basically have two rookies at both OLB spots. Nonetheless, you never know what’s up Dimitroff’s sleeve:
Akeem Ayers – 6’4 – 255 – Forty: 4.7 – UCLA
A physical specimen that may not even be around by pick #27. Totaled 24.5 tackles for a loss last two years (29.5 in career) and 14 total sacks in three years (4 as a junior). Probably will project more to a 3-4 OLB and Dimitroff usually stays away from juniors declaring early. Not a sack artist.
Bruce Carter – 6’3 – 235 – Forty: 4.6 – North Carolina
Doesn’t have eye-popping stats where he collared only 3.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks as senior. May do a lot of things good, but doesn’t seem to do anything particularly great. Could he start immediately? Doubtful.
Justin Houston – 6’3 – 258 – Forty: 4.75 – Georgia
Will be a very hot commodity in the new drive towards 3-4 teams seeking that excellent pass rusher. A hometown favorite that was a sack machine and a bright spot on an otherwise dreary Georgia defense. Totaled 33.5 tackles for a loss and 17.5 sacks in his last two years (10 sacks as a junior). Definitely seems to be a 3-4 OLB, but should Dimitroff continually overlook talent just because it doesn’t fit a perfect scheme? Does the name Clay Matthews ring a bell?
Mason Foster – 6’2 – 242 – Forty: 4.7 – Washington
Would probably be a major reach at #27, but projects to be a very good linebacker at the next level. Took in 27 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks as a junior and senior (6.5 sacks last year). Very good blitzer and also fluid in pass coverage. Pairing Foster with Weatherspoon sure would bring some athleticism to the LB corps.
Other notable prospects: Dontay Moch, Chris Carter, Colin McCarthy
So there you have it Cagers. What should the Falcons do about their linebacking corps: re-sign Nicholas, roll with one of the younger guys, or take another OLB in the first round?
-Straight up, what should the Falcons do at LB?
-Do you feel confident in Lofton and Spoon going forward?
-Can Lofton prove to be a true 3 down LB?
-Worried about Spoon or just injuries as a rookie?
-Should the Falcons pay up for Stephen Nicholas?
-Major mistake or blessing if Nicholas walks?
-Did Nicholas’ comments about Detroit bug you?
-Should Falcons explore free agency for an OLB?
-Would it be wise or dumb to draft another OLB in 1st?
-Of all OLB prospects, who’s your favorite?
-Does scheme really matter for draft picks?
-Should Falcons consider Justin Houston?