The main conversations regarding the Falcons off-season priorities have included what the Birds need to do to improve their defensive pass rush and coverage issues in the secondary. Defensive end, cornerback, re-signing Jason Snelling, and retaining the free agent offensive linemen have been the main decisions that fans have discussed. One not included in that list, and potentially as important as any, is what the Falcons front office plan to do at one outside linebacker spot. Curtis Lofton is the leader of the defense in the middle and Sean Weatherspoon is locked in at one of the spots (best suited for weakside OLB, but that’s for another day).
The big question is what the Falcons plan to do at the other spot. Do they finally re-sign Stephen Nicholas and pay him starter money, even though he hasn’t been able to outright win a spot since he’s been in red and black? Do they really trust Mike Peterson as a frontline starter for 16+ games at the ripe age of 35? Is it really conceivable for Akeem Dent to make any impact as a rookie when many believe he was reached for in the 3rd round by Thomas Dimitroff? Can Spencer Adkins and Robert James actually make the jump to starter after never getting a defensive snap in their careers? Is looking into a very shallow OLB free agent pool an answer? It’s a pretty big deal that isn’t as high on the priority list as it should be. The options:
Yes, Nicholas Has Shown Starter Potential
He may not be Terrell Suggs, but Stephen Nicholas has shown good progress and the capability of being the strongside linebacker. At minimum, Nicholas can be a bridge to the future, and a best case scenario will give the Falcons their most athletic LB corps in many years. He has been the most consistent starter for the Birds at OLB in the Smith/Dimitroff era where he’s started 24 games over the last two years and played in all but 3 since he’s been a Falcon.
Nicholas had 75+ tackles the last two years and registered more sacks in one year (3) by any linebacker in a long, long time. He may still have some coverage issues, but he has improved and would allow Weatherspoon to move to his natural position of Weakside Linebacker while he plays on the Strongside. Assuming Nicholas doesn’t ask for the moon, this one is a no-brainer. He’s shown he can start, tackle well, and rush the passer. With much bigger issues at defensive end and cornerback, do the Birds really need another hole on defense?
No, Let Him Walk
Many thought Nicholas coming back would be a non-issue since he’s had decent results as a starter and the fact that Coach Mike Smith was so supportive of him during his issue with his young son. Then he raved about Detroit’s defense, accidentally or not, and how much he’d like to play with Ndamukong Suh completely out of the blue. That has led many to think that Nicholas will be looking for a big payday. Some can understand why the Falcons are hesitant to pay big for #54. He continues to have major coverage issues and has not been able to claim a full-time starting position since being a Falcon (Weatherspoon and Peterson were named initial starters last year). The Falcons didn’t place any tender on him for a reason. He is not a long-term answer in the front office’s eyes. Let him go start somewhere else.
Yes, Fresh Legs and Athleticism Abound
The Falcons front office don’t seem to worried about the future at OLB and that may be for good reason. Mike Peterson may be 35, but he proved to be invaluable in a very young defense that has yet to get a vocal leader next in line and Peterson brings a toughness and tenacity that the youngsters need to learn. Peterson could get the starting role, but in an attempt to keep him fresh they could begin their bridge to the future by seeing what they have in rookie Akeem Dent, Spencer Adkins, and Robert James. Dent is a rookie, but even many in the media believe that Dent may be the future at strongside linebacker. A product of poor coaching and transition, Dent could be another in a long line of underdeveloped gems from the UGA program the last few years. He couldn’t learn from anyone better than Peterson.
The coaches may elect to finally see if Adkins and/or James can finally make the jump to starter status after being groomed for 3 years (Adkins) and 4 years (James) in the program. Both have immense athleticism and Coach Smith has been quoted as saying that Adkins and James will get every chance to claim a starting spot. Peterson will get the nod and a trial by fire could decide who will be our next OLB of the future between Dent, Adkins, or James.
No, Too Unproven and Unknown
Even though Mike Peterson has been invaluable, his days as a permanent starting outside linebacker have simply come to an end. He could still play a great role as mentor, leader, and backup on this Falcons team. Many believe Akeem Dent was a reach on draft day as it was and the history of lower drafted LB’s shows not to expect much of anything. He may have a role someday, but anything other than special teams is asking way too much as a rookie.
Adkins and James haven’t been able to work their way onto the defense for any meaningful snaps in their careers and have been relegated to special team mercenaries. In James case, he hasn’t even been able to keep a consistent spot on the 53 man roster. Even though Coach Smith talks about giving them opportunities to win a spot, if either were a long-term answer we would’ve heard something from them by now. Re-sign Nicholas or hit the free agent market.
Yes, Take a Chance in Free Agency
Granted, the free agent pool is thin, but if the Falcons get a good fit, it could help alleviate a lot worries and could add some much needed athleticism into the OLB corps. Who knows exactly what the collective bargaining agreement will look like (assuming one ever gets done), but there may be a few guys worth taking a look at:
**Some may have re-upped with their teams or won’t be free agents at all**
David Harris – Age: 27 – New York Jets
He is more suited to the 3-4, but Harris has shown he can get after the passer racking up 14.5 sacks in his career, which makes about quadruple the amount the Falcons linebackers have gotten in almost a decade COMBINED! Is a little big at 250, but Sean Weatherspoon is 6’1, 241, so it’s not that far-fetched.
James Anderson – Age: 27 – Carolina Panthers
A dream scenario, but you never know with the dysfunction junction they have going on in Charlotte. One of their best players and had a Pro Bowl worthy year with 130 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 FF, and 1 interception. Would be an amazing answer at strongside linebacker and would set the linebacker corps as one of the best in the NFL for at least 5-6 years. Carolina won’t let one of their best players go, but if they do, the Falcons would be crazy to pass him up.
Rocky McIntosh – Age: 28 – Washington Redskins
It’s arguable how much of an upgrade McIntosh would be over Nicholas in terms of rushing the passer, but got less than 80+ sacks only once in his career and that was as a rookie. Racked up 94 tackles in 2009 and 110 in 2010. Is obviously very athletic notching 7 career sacks and an excellent 17 passes defensed. May be more of an inside linebacker, but could definitely be an answer if he he’s a scheme fit.
Thomas Davis – Age: 28 – Carolina Panthers
Anderson’s teammate could be a target for the Falcons. The former Georgia high school stud and one of UGA’s best safeties in history could be low risk and high reward. Davis was on track to being one of the NFL’s best OLB’s when two knee injuries has put his career in doubt. He may not offer much in terms of definite contribution, but if he were able to rekindle his magic, than look out with him pairing with Spoon and Lofton. Also, guess who was his defensive coordinator in college? Yep, one Mr. Brian Van Gorder.
Many others available, but not many would be much of an upgrade.
No, Would Be a Waste of Money
The OLB market for free agents is one of the weakest positions of any in this year’s class. Why do you think that Stephen Nicholas is looking to cash in when his stats are mediocre? Outside of a few (Anderson, Harris), none of the free agents add anything more than re-signing Stephen Nicholas would. Also, Smith and Dimitroff pride themselves on grooming their own players and limiting free agency signings. Getting a bona fide defensive end and a nickel back are much higher on the priority list.