There’s a ton of questions surrounding the Falcons defense in 2012. They have 3 legit NFL starting cornerbacks they must try and keep happy. Mike Nolan is bringing a very new defense to Atlanta. It will be interesting seeing how the defensive end rotation shakes out and of course there’s the battle for middle linebacker after the sour grapes departing of Curtis Lofton. One area that may not be at the forefront for many fans is the issue of outside linebacker. Yes, their emerging leader of the defense and one of the best young talents is Sean Weatherspoon at OLB. Spoon looks to take his level to an even higher level under Nolan. However, some questions arise after Weatherspoon on the depth chart.
Stephen Nicholas has been a big case of unrealized potential. Nicholas got his big chance when he earned the starting nod at outside linebacker in 2009 and had his best statistical year of his career, racking up 80 tackles, collaring 3 sacks (which led all non defensive linemen that year), 3 passes defensed, and 1 forced fumble. He gave way several times in 2010 to Sean Weatherspoon and Mike Peterson as starters in 2010, but still managed to collar 78 tackles, but with no sacks. Last year saw Nicholas get injured and only play in 10 total games, starting 8 of them. Nicholas is still battling the toe injury that has kept him out recently. To many fans delight, Nicholas came back for a pretty reasonable price (5 year, $17.5 million) when he was due to become a free agent in 2011. Problem is that time is starting to run out on Nicholas getting his “breakout” that many has seen with his seeming potential since he just turned 29.
Spencer Adkins stats won’t overwhelm you, but he did show some flashes in the very few appearances he made with injuries to Nicholas and Mike Peterson late in the season and in the playoffs. He may have not stood out as a playmaker, but he didn’t do outright terrible either. He’s always been reported to have major talent and upside, but that he was a major project.
As a 6th round draft pick back in 2009, he’s made the outright active roster every year since and has been excellent on special teams. With the Falcons usually keeping 6 linebackers, it’s hard to believe Adkins won’t make the roster after starting in the playoffs, only being 24, and showing some of that long talked about upside.
Robert James is a story of “had potential, but never realized” if there ever was. It’s a wonder he’s still on the team in some form or fashion, but he is. James was drafted in the same class as Matt Ryan and Harry Douglas, but has not seen the field in live game action since. He has bounced around between the practice squad and off for several years now.
He went through injury issues and then he was suspended for violating the league’s drug policy and (to known knowledge) has never officially made the active roster. The fact is that James hasn’t even made the 53-man roster in 4 years of possibilities. It’s hard to imagine 2012 finally being James breakthrough when he’s 28 years old with tons of younger talent abound.
Assuming the Falcons keep 4 outside linebackers as they have in the Mike Smith Era and figuring that Weatherspoon, Nicholas, and Adkins take up 3 of those spots, there appears to be one spot available for someone. There is a plethora of talent at outside linebacker from the undrafted free agent pool including Max Gruder, Pat Schiller, Matt Hansen, and Jerrell Harris. Taking the belief that an actual spot will be open and someone like Robert James won’t fill it or Mike Peterson is brought back, there’s a very good opportunity for one of these players to make the team mainly for special teams work, but could also grow into more in the future.
Even though it’s still a longshot, the Falcons top brass haven’t shied away from keeping undrafted free agents to make the active roster, including John Parker Wilson and Michael Palmer, among others. It’s hard to gauge which LB’s stick out since they’re all lumped in the same pool. In terms of stats, Pat Schiller and Max Gruder project as the favorites with their versatility and overall athleticism being able to tackle, cover, rush the passer, and force fumbles. Jerrell Harris comes from the best pedigree as a member of a Nick Saban coached Crimson Tide member who won 2 national championships while at Tuscaloosa. Finally, the linebacker who’s looked the best so far has been underdog pick Matt Hansen who wowed at mini-camp, picking off many passes and looking very fluid.
Ultimately, the candidate who offers the best prowess on special teams and has the most upside will win the spot. That’s all assuming that a spot will even be there. It’s a very distinct possibility that Mike Nolan and Co. will decide to keep all 6 defensive ends, using one or more of them as DE/OLB hybrids, and keep only 5 true LBs.
In an interview during mini-camp, Mike Nolan may have confirmed what many fans have thought since his hiring: that even though the 4-3 will be the base defense, that fans can expect several 3-4 looks in 2012. He also was quoted as saying that all the defensive ends currently on the roster would be standing up as OLB’s in his pure 3-4 defenses. The numbers for the roster have stayed fairly consistent during the Mike Smith Era, with only a few changes here and there. Overall, the Falcons have kept 5 DT’s, 5 DE’s, and 6 LB’s, and 10 DB’s (6 CB’s + 4 S) on the roster. The big question is, with so many supposedly young and talented DE’s, who would be cut or move more to an OLB type role.
Ray Edwards comes in at the heaviest defensive end at 268, so he’ll likely stay at defensive end in a 4-3 or move to a 5 technique DE in a 3-4. John Abraham certainly can play with his hand up and drop back into coverage, as Brian Van Gorder’s fetish proved, but in general, Abraham has made his hay with his hand in the dirt. That doesn’t mean that Abraham won’t play in a standup / OLB role, but that most of his snaps will be at defensive end.
Kroy Biermann appears one of the likely candidates to move into an OLB type role. Coming out of Montana as a rookie, Biermann was 241 lbs. Most scouting projections actually had him playing as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Biermann, being the excellent team guy that he is, gained up to 260 lbs to play defensive end and has had mixed results there. He has shown the athleticism needed with his pass deflection, interception, and subsequent rumble for defensive touchdown. He did it in 2010 against Cleveland and 2011 vs. Chicago. He’s listed now as 255 and definitely looks lighter than he used to in mini-camp and OTA’s. Even though he has shown he can play defensive end, outside linebacker might be his new position.
Lawrence Sidbury was one of the most athletic defensive ends to come out of the 2009 draft and hasn’t disappointed while showing flashes as a Falcon. Many have wondered if Sidbury could make the transition to a standup OLB if needed or desired. He’s 6’2, and listed at 261, but came out of Richmond at 266. Many are hoping for big things from Sidbury this year with his athletic ability and pass-rushing skills. Sidbury’s right up there with Biermann as a candidate for a hybrid mix.
New draft pick Jonathan Massaquoi has also undergone a transformation like Biermann. However, instead of gaining weight, Mass has dropped weight, down 15 lbs from 275 back to 260. The 5th round draft pick is very similar to Sidbury in build, height, and weight. He has shown a knack for getting after the QB and getting back to his original weight has helped in the process. Massaquoi will probably be seeing looks standing up and with his hand on the ground.
Finally, there’s the curious case of Cliff Matthews. Matthews showed some glimpses last preseason and of course was never seen or heard from again under Smith and Van Gorder’s previous defense. Matthews is 6’4, but his weight remains a mystery. NFL.com has him listed as 268 lbs, closer to Ray Edwards. Atlanta Falcons most current roster listing has him at 257. Much like Abraham, Sidbury ,and Massaquoi, Matthews may see looks at both spots. Matthews likely has the biggest uphill battle to make the active roster if they decide to go with only 5 defensive ends.
The past four years have had the Falcons keeping 6 linebackers, specifically 4 outside linebackers, but this might be the year for a change. Spoon and Nicholas are obvious locks and it’s hard to think that Adkins won’t make the team for his 4th consecutive year. There are a few options the Falcons can take regarding the roster. One, they can go with their standard 5 defensive ends and 6 linebackers and that would leave someone like Cliff Matthews on the outside looking in while an undrafted free agent like Pat Schiller or Max Gruder make the roster.
Second, they can decide that their defensive ends are simply too talented to let go and will keep all 6 defensive ends and having one of them, Biermann perhaps, work mainly as an OLB. They would then have to drop one of the LB spots to 5 instead of 6 (3 OLBs and 2 MLBs). Finally, they could maneuver the numbers elsewhere, such as dropping the 5th running back, 5th wide receiver, 3rd tight end, or 5th defensive tackle.
With the hiring of Mike Nolan and his desire for an attack minded defense, it makes the most sense to keep all 5 defensive ends with their talent, pass-rushing skills, and upside. Stephen Nicholas’ injury issues are starting to get worrisome, so moving a guy like Biermann to outside linebacker makes a ton of sense and all the while gives a ton of versatility in looks and possibilities. As the New York Giants have shown, you can never have too many players that can get after the QB. It’s just too logical not to keep all the talent at defensive end, rather than keep a 6th linebacker, likely an undrafted free agent, just for the sake of it.
1) Are the Falcons in a good place in terms of OLB depth?
2) Outside of Spoon, is there cause for concern?
3) Is time running out on Nicholas’ “breakout?”
4) Can any of the undrafted free agents take the 6th LB spot?
5) Should the Falcons keep 6 DE’s/5 LBs or 5 DE’s/6 LB’s?
6) Which of the current DE’s will get the most OLB looks?
7) Should Biermann start working exclusively at OLB?
Who makes the roster at LB and DE?