A position where the Atlanta Falcons made some of their biggest offseason additions came at linebacker in the hopes that they can improve what was among the league’s weakest units in 2014.
The Falcons snatched up Brooks Reed and Justin Durant on the first day of free agency and gave them the two most lucrative contracts of the offseason. The team is optimstic that their veteran presence can help stablize this position.
Reed will man the strong-side outside linebacker position while Durant will play opposite him on the weak side. Reed fits the Dan Quinn mantra of playing “fast and physical,” having done that in recent years with the Houston Texans. Reed specializes in defending the run, showing a physical ability to set the edge. While he never developed as a prolific pass-rusher in Houston despite playing outside in a 3-4 defense, Reed has steadily improved as a coverage player and will be asked to cover tight ends and running backs in both man coverage as well as working a lot in zone with the Falcons. All of these things fit Reed’s skillset well and thus he should be very effective in Quinn’s scheme, even though it probably won’t lead to huge production in 2015.
Durant on the other hand should see a wealth of production in Atlanta. Durant was leading the Dallas Cowboys in tackles last season before a torn biceps injury sidelined him for the final 10 games of 2014. Durant is a versatile veteran player that is capable of playing all three linebacker positions, although he’ll almost certainly man the weak-side for the Falcons. But the Falcons have also worked him this offseason at middle linebacker, but it’s likely he’ll remain outside in training camp.
Durant is a capable every-down defender, showing good speed and range to make plays all over the field against the run as well as in coverage. For those reasons, he’s likely to be the biggest impact defender at the linebacker position and could potentially lead the team in tackles in 2015. The one major knock on Durant is durability. Since entering the league in 2007, he’s never had a season where he started all 16 games. Even excluding last year, on average Durant has missed roughly three games per year.
If Durant is unable to shake the injury bug with the Falcons, then an important aspect of Falcons training camp will be finding someone on the bench that can replace him in the starting lineup. Looking over the backup linebackers, the player most likely to stick on the roster is O’Brien Schofield. Schofield is expected to back up Reed on the strong-side, but could also get a lot of work as a pass-rusher at defensive end in the team’s sub-packages this season. Schofield is a capable special teams player, his versatility to fill a variety of roles and Quinn’s familiarity with him from their shared days in Seattle probably make him relatively safe in the various camp competitions.
Right now, the player most likely to enter training camp as the backup behind Durant on the weak side is third-year linebacker Joplo Bartu. But unlike Schofield, Bartu is anything but a lock to make the team. Bartu is one of the team’s most athletic linebackers, and there’s potential that he could blossom in the new defensive scheme. Quinn’s scheme asks its linebackers to do a lot less thinking and a lot more running and hitting, something that should benefit Bartu, who struggled with reading and diagnosing plays throughout the 2014 season under former defensvie coordinator Mike Nolan.
Holding Bartu back is the fact that he’s not particularly well-versed on special teams, having only spent minimal time there over the past two years and rarely making an impact when he did get reps. He’ll have to prove this summer that he can be an asset on special teams, given that several other backup Falcon linebackers are more proven there.
One player that does have special-teams value, but probably won’t have to prove it is Paul Worrilow. Worrilow is expected to fill a starting position, but he may have the most to prove among the entire position group this summer.
After a very promising rookie season as an undrafted free agent in 2013, Worrilow was one of the league’s least effective players a year ago. Worrilow is essentially out to prove that 2014 was the aberration and that under Quinn, he can bounce back to the promising effort he showed the year prior.
Worrilow is a smart player, but struggled throughout 2014 when it came to the more physical elements of playing linebacker position such as tackling, defeating blocks and playing in coverage. He’ll have to reverse that trend, as those elements are important in the fast and physical scheme of Quinn.
Worrilow might also be the best candidate to replace Durant on the weak side in the event of an injury, since Worrilow did begin the 2013 regular season playing outside rather than inside linebacker. The Falcons could also tinker with Durant and Worrilow swapping starting positions this summer if Worrilow doesn’t showcase the skills needed to man the middle. Such a swap may be the only real competition that occurs among the Falcons’ starters at linebacker.
If that was to occur, there will be more focus on the backup middle linebacker position where Nate Stupar and Allen Bradford are expected to compete for the honors to be the top backup to whomever winds up starting there.
The main asset that both Stupar and Bradford have going for them is their special-teams ability. Stupar was one of the team’s best special teams players a year ago, but Bradford has the benefit of being well-known by Quinn’s staff having been on and off the Seahawks’ roster the past few years. There’s no guarantee that both will make the roster and thus it’ll be important for both to try and outplay the other to give them their best shots at playing for the Falcons in 2015.
Marquis Spruill is also in the mix, but will need to show he’s recovered from the ACL tear that sidelined him last summer. Spruill certainly has the speed that Quinn prefers, but will need to show that the knee injury hasn’t reduced that by much. Spruill will be competing behind Bartu on the weak side, potentially benefiting if Bartu doesn’t step up.
The same can be said of fellow 2014 draftee Tyler Starr, who like Spruill will be fighting to stick on the team. Starr has potential, but will need to prove himself on special teams to leapfrog up the depth chart at strong-side linebacker. Starr got the benefit of the doubt as a draft pick a year ago with being the 53rd player on the roster. Neither he nor Spruill will get that same benefit this year with a new coaching staff didn’t draft them.
A pair of undrafted free agents in Boris Anyama and Derek Akunne have as good a chance as any undrafted guys of sticking on the roster. Anyama is athletic with coverage potential, while Akunne is very active and physical player. Both players have tools worth developing that could be destined for the practice squad if they can apply their abilities to special teams. But similar to both Worrilow and Bartu two summers ago, both have an opportunity to make the roster if they can come out strong in training camp.
The Falcons will likely wind up keeping six or seven linebackers, with four of the spots being pretty much sewn up between Reed, Durant, Schofield and Worrilow. It’ll be up for the rest of the group to fight it out for the remaining spots and truth be told one could start picking names out of the hat and find plausible combinations.
Those last few spots are almost certainly going to be devoted to players that can both add depth, but mainly contribute on special teams. That probably gives a slight nudge to Stupar in terms of his chances of sticking, but the competition is a lot more up in the air than it has been in past summers.
One of the keys of the Quinn staff will be remaking the positional group that was the front-runner for the biggest underachievers a year ago. That could mean a lot more turnover when it comes down to finalizing the roster than many might presume. This linebacker group has all the makings of being one where competition will be heightened.