The Atlanta Falcons made it a priority to upgrade their linebacker play this offseason by signing a number of free agents. But that doesn’t mean that the team is done at the position as they head into the 2015 NFL Draft.
The Falcons’ biggest free-agent signings this offseason were also their first, adding linebackers Brooks Reed and Justin Durant on the first official day of free agency. Both players are expected to be inserted immediately as starters at outside linebacker with Reed playing on the strong side and Durant on the weak.
Prior to the team bringing in Reed and Durant, upgrading the linebacker position was likely going to be a high priority in the draft. A player like UCLA’s Eric Kendricks seemed like a perfect fit given the fact that he could potentially play inside and outside linebacker and also was well known to new Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. Ulbrich served as Kendrick’s position coach for two years prior to being promoted to UCLA’s defensive coordinator in 2014. Kendricks is expected to go off the board within the first 50 selections and if available, would have made an ideal second-round selection for the Falcons.
But the signings of Reed and Durant might have pushed the linebacker position to the back burner while the team looks to address other more dire needs on the second day of the draft.
Because of that, the Falcons may be prepared to go into 2015 with Reed, Durant and Paul Worrilow as their three starting linebackers. While Worrilow is coming off a very disappointing 2014 season, it wasn’t that long ago that he was considered a promising up-and-coming player. Worrilow’s lack of physicality and coverage ability were too often exposed last season having played all but four defensive snaps. Improving his play may be as simple as the team relegating him into a part-time player that is pulled off the field in most passing situations.
It is interesting that in Durant, the Falcons have a potential fall-back option at middle linebacker. It’s notable since the Falcons have already tinkered with playing Durant inside already this offseason, which means that the Falcons may not be prepared to enter the 2015 with Worrilow as a starter at that position. That reality will become even more apparent if the Falcons wind up using an early-to-mid-round pick on another linebacker. The Falcons may hope to add another starting-caliber linebacker and have an open competition this summer to see which three-man combo is best suited to be the starters. Given the investment the Falcons made in free agency, it’s likely that two of those three spots will be filled by Durant and Reed. However, where Durant plays would depend on whether Worrilow or the rookie emerged.
Another reason for Durant’s potential move to the middle might be due the possibility that the Falcons could deploy Worrilow on the weak side. After all, most of his impressive early snaps in 2013 that made him an up-and-comer came at outside linebacker when he was an early-season injury replacement for Sean Weatherspoon.
Even though there are legitimate concerns about whether Worrilow should figure into the team’s long-term plans as a starter, if the new Falcons brass managed to dust off some of that 2013 tape, there’s reason to hope that the third-year player’s career could potentially get back on track.
One thing is for certain, the linebacker position will be one of the units that could be most in flux this summer due to the wealth of competition. Offseason additions like O’Brien Schofield and Allen Bradford figure to compete beside incumbents in Joplo Bartu, Prince Shembo, Marquis Spruill, Tyler Starr and Nate Stupar. Whoever manages to emerge from that competition should go along way to improving the team’s depth.
The Falcons could certainly add another draft pick into the mix there but unless they are targeting someone that clearly has starter’s upside, any late-round linebacker may be hard-pressed to stick given the wealth of young and hungry competition he’ll be facing.
If the Falcons do decide that they’d like to add another starting-caliber linebacker, they’ll likely do so early in the draft. Ideally a player like Kendricks will be available, but there are other potential starters that the Falcons have shown interest in that could be penciled as potential day-one starters like Stephone Anthony (Clemson), Paul Dawson (TCU), Denzel Perryman (Miami) and Shaq Thompson (Washington).
But like the defensive tackle position, the Falcons could wind up standing pat at linebacker and see what the current group makes of 2015 and potentially address any lingering issues in next year’s draft.