The Atlanta Falcons mostly stood pat in free agency when it came to upgrading their linebacker corps, indicating that the position group will be a priority to address entering the 2016 NFL Draft.
The Falcons did try to make upgrades this offseason by trying to lure free agents Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman to Atlanta. They also showed some interest in James Laurinaitis. But none signed with the Falcons, choosing other teams to play for in 2016.
Now the Falcons are stuck with a bunch of players on the roster that are essentially working under one-year contract as none of the team’s current linebacker corps is guaranteed to be on the roster beyond 2016. So this year’s draft will give the team it’s only opportunity to add some long-term options before the year is up.
It’s almost a certainty that the Falcons will add at least one linebacker in this year’s draft. Although they’d ideally want to add two at both middle and weak-side linebacker, where the team is most vulnerable.
The strong-side linebacker is by no means a true strength, but with starter Brooks Reed working ahead of players like Tyler Starr, Courtney Upshaw, LaRoy Reynolds and potentially Vic Beasley, the Falcons should have few qualms about that spot moving forward. Even though there’s a high probability that Reed is playing his final season with the Falcons, the potential of Beasley moving to linebacker on a permanent basis in 2017 compels the Falcons to adopt a “wait and see” outlook in regards to drafting another strong-side linebacker.
Instead the big question is whether the Falcons see middle or weak-side linebacker as the more problematic area on the roster.
Purely from a production and depth standpoint, the middle would seem more of an issue right now. Incumbent starter Paul Worrilow struggled for the third consecutive season as a starter there and it’s about time the Falcons try to replace him. They tried in free agency to no avail and the draft represents their last real opportunity to try and upgrade the spot.
Worrilow is set to be an unrestricted free agent next year and right now there isn’t another true middle linebacker on the roster besides him. Backup weak-side linebacker Philip Wheeler has some past experience at middle linebacker, but the team knows he’s a more natural fit on the weak side rather than manning the middle.
But if the team were to find a quality weak-side linebacker at some point in the draft, they probably won’t hesitate to pull the trigger, which would compel Wheeler to move to the middle to back up Worrilow.
Sean Weatherspoon is currently penciled in to start on the weak side, but given that he’s missed a combined 27 games over the past three seasons, whether or not he’ll be healthy enough to do so remains to be seen. Wheeler gives the team an experienced backup should they need him there, but ideally the Falcons would want to add some youth and speed to the position.
Ideally the Falcons can add two young, long-term starters at both middle and weak-side linebacker in this year’s draft. If not, they’ll have to choose which position is more dire a situation given their limited number of draft picks.
The talent pool in the draft suggests they’ll have an easier time finding a quality weak-side linebacker than they would a middle linebacker, which could ultimately influence their decision if/when push comes to shove and the team can only have one player.
Any rookie added won’t be guaranteed a starting spot, but probably will get every opportunity to compete for and ultimately win the job outright in training camp.
The Falcons have fielded one of the weakest groups of linebackers over the past three seasons and the only way that changes is if they can infuse this group with more talent. That will be priority entering next week’s draft.