As mentioned in the discussion about the future of the Falcons defensive line, the team now employs a hybrid defense, being able to shift from 3-4 to 4-3 at a moment’s notice.
That bears out in how the Falcons linebacker corps looks come the year 2015. Leading the unit is Sean Weatherspoon who has become the leader and anchor of the Falcons defense. Much of their defensive success over the past few seasons has been due to the strong play of Spoon, who has earned two Pro Bowl bids in the past three seasons. Weatherspoon plays on the weakside of the defense, lining up on the outside when the team utilizes the 4-3, but plays inside when they switch to the 3-4.
Beside Weatherspoon at the middle linebacker spot is Akeem Dent. Over the past three seasons, Dent has never truly been a full-time starter but is counted among their key role players. But 2015 is the first time that Dent is expected to be a true starter. Part of the reason why the Falcons have never handed the keys fully to Dent over the years is the presence of veteran Daryl Smith, whom the team signed in 2014. Smith a savvy and underrated veteran from Jacksonville first joined the team as an upgrade on the strongside. But his versatility to play all three linebacker positions made him a valuable piece in the team’s nickel defense as well as in their switch to a 3-4 defense. Smith now 33 going into the 2015 is near the end, the team is expecting Dent to take over full-time at the middle linebacker position.
Keeping in with their 3-4 looks, the team used top pick in 2015 on Georgia pass rusher Ray Drew, who they intend to see become one of the league’s more feared edge rushers. Drew will also play on the strongside in their 4-3 looks, but the plan at least as a rookie is for him to split reps with Smith there. Even though Drew won’t be an everydown player right away, the team is confident that he can have an Aldon Smith-like impact even as a situational rusher coming off the edge as a rookie.
Stephen Nicholas is still around because of his ability to provide depth and also give the team a competent pass rusher on the outside, making him able to work in both 4-3 and 3-4 looks. He’ll also be in the mix on the strongside in certain situations.