After a 2015 offseason where the Atlanta Falcons made some major additions at linebacker in free agency, the team is likely headed back to the drawing board at the position, hoping to coax better play from the unit in 2016.
Middle linebacker and unit leader Paul Worrilow has been underwhelming the past two years as a starter. Frankly the Falcons can’t afford to have a “third strike” entering 2016 by keeping him in the starting lineup.
While there was improvement in 2015 after a very lackluster season in 2014, Worrilow still appears to be one of the least effective starting linebackers in the NFL. His status as a restricted free agent means that Worrilow almost certainly will return in Atlanta, it’s just a question of whether he’ll be a starter or a reserve.
Yet the release of veteran Justin Durant earlier this month potentially suggests the team sees weak-side linebacker as a bigger priority to upgrade this offseason. Durant’s impact in 2015 did not meet expectations, especially after he suffered an arm injury in the first month of the regular season. While he had several positive standout moments, they were too often interspersed with negative ones such as missed tackles and blown coverages.
Thus the Falcons immediate priority will be deciding how to fill Durant’s vacancy at outside linebacker. That could mean re-signing free agent Philip Wheeler. In a limited role where he was primarily used as a blitzer in dime sub-packages during the latter part of 2015, Wheeler proved an effective player. He also was a capable fill-in starter for an injured Durant during the middle part of the year, suggesting that he could be a potential option to start in 2016.
However at age 31, it’s fair to question if Wheeler should be considered an upgrade over a 30-year old Durant. The last time a team tried to start Wheeler for a full year, back in 2013 with the Miami Dolphins, ended with underwhelming results. It would be a roll of the dice for the Falcons to insert Wheeler into the starting lineup, no questions asked.
But at the very least, Wheeler gives the team an effective insurance policy as a veteran player that is a relatively known commodity, in case they can’t find a better option elsewhere. That option is likely to come in the draft, where adding a significantly younger and faster player to enhance the speed and coverage ability of the Falcons linebackers is desired.
If the Falcons do wait until the draft to address the weak-side linebacker spot, it could free them up to address middle linebacker in free agency. Should the team decide to splurge at linebacker in March, it’s likelier it will be to bolster the inside spot rather than the outside.
Free agents like Danny Trevathan (Denver Broncos), Jerrell Freeman (Indianapolis Colts) and Tahir Whitehead (Detroit Lions) potentially top the free-agent crop of inside linebackers. Trevathan is well known to the Falcons brass, given defensive coordinator Richard Smith coached him during his early days in Denver.
Freeman, who turns 30 in May, is an older free agent thanks to several years spent honing his skills in Canada, but has been a highly productive player the past few years at inside linebacker in Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defense in Indianapolis. However, Freeman’s veteran leadership and coverage skills might be coveted by the Falcons given the recent struggles of Worrilow to provide adequate abilities in those same areas.
Whitehead could be the dark horse of the group, but wants to play middle linebacker and could get that opportunity in Atlanta, should Detroit be unable to retain him. He was very effective playing that role in 2014 when he replaced an injured Stephen Tulloch, who was recently informed he will be released by the Lions this offseason.
Another spot the Falcons could potentially make a big splash in free agent might come at the other starting linebacker spot on the strong side. There, Brooks Reed is coming off an underwhelming 2015 campaign that was marred by the same nagging groin injury that limited him a year earlier.
The Falcons might decide to release him, although that require them taking on $3.76 million in dead money, which is $320,000 more than what Reed is slated to count against the cap in 2016. However if the Falcons did that, it would be driven primarily by their attempt to avoid guaranteeing the $2.5 million in base salary he is set to make this upcoming season. That salary is guaranteed for injury only but will be fully guaranteed should Reed still remain on the team’s roster on March 11.
Given their excess in current cap space, the Falcons could afford to take on the relative small cap penalty given that 2016 is already likely to be Reed’s last year in Atlanta. Barring a Pro Bowl-caliber performance this upcoming season, the team is unlikely to retain him in 2017 when his cap hit increases to over $5 million.
If the Falcons dump Reed this offseason, it would create a void that many hope could be filled by Seattle Seahawks free agent Bruce Irvin. It would be a homecoming for the Atlanta native and also give the Falcons a more athletic player at strong-side linebacker as well as another adept pass-rusher to improve on the team’s league-low 19 sacks produced in 2015.
However Irvin could be a pricey addition and with the Falcons already splurging on Reed last March to the tune of $22.5 million, would they be willing to do so again? Even for an obvious upgrade like Irvin? Another factor going into that decision is the potential that the team could move defensive end Vic Beasley to strong-side linebacker down the road.
The Falcons also have O’Brien Schofield and Nate Stupar already on the roster, as both proved capable of handling the strong side in Reed’s absence last season. Not to mention, 2014 draftee Tyler Starr still remains on the roster as well.
Do the Falcons need to invest more money in a strong-side position that isn’t particularly critical to the defensive scheme as opposed to the middle and weak-side linebacker spots that traditionally play every down? Especially in lieu of already having four players (Beasley, Schofield, Stupar and Starr) that could give them everything Irvin potentially provides?
These are unanswered questions and yet the Falcons might be so desperate to upgrade their pass rush that they’d be willing to pay any price to add even a potentially redundant player like Irvin.
Regardless middle and weak-side linebacker should be the bigger priorities at this position since far more questions exist at the starting spots. There the team should be definitely looking for two new starters with one likely to come via free agency and another via the draft. It’s simply a matter of figuring out which is which this offseason.