The Atlanta Falcons continue to reshape their linebacker corps, which has been among the league’s weakest units the past few years. That reshaping will likely feature some of the more hotly contested battles for starting spots throughout the entire roster in this summer’s training camp.
The team’s attempted remodeling began last year when the team jumped headlong into free agency with the signings of Brooks Reed and Justin Durant. However, Durant was ousted after just one injury-plagued first season. Reed could have followed the same route if not for the fact that a significant portion of his $3.4 million cap hit in 2016 wass guaranteed at signing. Instead Reed will be moving to defensive end, where he will be counted upon as a rotational player.
Reed’s move was prompted somewhat by the team’s desire to progress the development of 2015 first-round pick in Vic Beasley. Beasley’s primary duties in 2016 will remain at defensive end when the team goes to their nickel sub-package for roughly 60 percent of their defensive plays but he’ll also get some looks at Reed’s former strong-side linebacker spot this year. The Falcons experimented with Beasley dropping into coverage and playing on his feet later in the 2015 season and saw enough positive results to expand on that role this year.
Yet Beasley won’t be a full-time linebacker in all probability since the Falcons are likely only testing the waters. He might make a permanent move next season if all goes well in the same vein as what Bruce Irvin did when Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was named Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator duties in 2013. Irvin, a former 2012 first-round pick, started out as a situational defensive end during his rookie year but struggled to hold up against the run. The Seahawks switched him to full-time linebacker and part-time pass-rushing defensive end beginning in 2013 and Irvin took very well to the move. The switch went so swimmingly that Irvin just earned himself a massive contract from the Oakland Raiders this past offseason in free agency. The Falcons are hopeful that Beasley’s positional change could prompt a similar blossoming in the near future.
Alleviating some of the pressure off Beasley to be a full-tim starter at strong-side linebacker is expected to be veteran Philip Wheeler, who is returning to the Falcons after being added midway through the 2015 regular season. Wheeler proved an effective situational player at weak-side linebacker in the Falcons’ dime sub-package last year, being used often as a blitzer. The Falcons hope to expand that role this summer into a full-fledged starter as he took the majority of first-team snaps on the strong side this past offseason.
The presence of Reed as well as veteran Courtney Upshaw also gives the Falcons other insurance policies at strong-side linebacker in case the team realizes that Beasley isn’t taking to the position switch as well as hoped. Like Reed, Upshaw is likely to spend a good chunk of his playing time at defensive end. Upshaw is a capable run-stopper that struggles to play in space and coverage, so the Falcons probably want to limit his exposure at linebacker as much as possible.
But despite the turnover on the strong side, the crux of the focus of this summer’s camp competitions will center on the other two linebacker positions where the Falcons could feature two fairly wide open roster battles.
Paul Worrilow is the incumbent at the middle linebacker, as the two-time defensive captain will be challenged heavily by second-round draft pick Deion Jones. Jones brings considerably more speed and athleticism to the position than Worrilow, with the Falcons optimistic that it will lead to a major upgrade in the defense’s overall ability to match up in coverage over the middle. Fast running backs especially carved up the Falcons’ pass defense last year as the team ranked dead last according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric when defending running backs out the backfield.
But despite the upgrade in physical abilities, Worrilow is unlikely to lay down for the first-year upstart. The jump to the NFL is a big one and Jones will be making a relatively modest transition from collegiate weak-side linebacker to professional middle linebacker. There are also concerns over whether Jones has the size or physicality to hold up to the punishment of playing in the NFL.
That gives Worrilow a fighting chance to retain his position at least to start the season. But the writing is clearly on the wall that Jones is envisioned to be the future of the position and thus it’s only inevitable that he winds up winning the gig at some point. Worrilow’s best hope is that he can play well enough this summer as well as in the regular season to prolong that transition through the end of the year.
The dynamic on the weak side isn’t too dissimilar as the one in the middle as veteran Sean Weatherspoon is expected to compete with fourth-round rookie De’Vondre Campbell for the starting job. Weatherspoon’s torn Achilles injury in 2014 and subsequent departure a year ago in free agency could be considered to have contributed heavily to the downturn in linebacker play for the Falcons in recent years. After a lackluster year in Arizona in 2015 where Weatherspoon was a rarely used backup and special-teams performer, the Falcons are hopeful that with more time to recover from his injury, 2016 will be the year that he bounces back to his earlier form.
However given the fact that Weatherspoon has been injury prone throughout his career, missing a combined 30 games over the past four seasons, it’s probably a safe bet that Campbell will get an opportunity to play at some point in 2016 even if that doesn’t come in Week One.
Although a bit raw in terms of his instincts and awareness, Campbell possesses the physical tools and assets to be an effective starter. It’s just a matter of how quickly can he show those abilities. With a strong summer, he could unseat the veteran Weatherspoon as a starter. But it’s more likely that the veteran presences of Weatherspoon, Wheeler and even Worrilow, all of whom have experience playing the weak side, mean that the Falcons shouldn’t feel compelled to rush Campbell. Even Jones could get a long look at the position should Worrilow successfully fend him off in the middle.
Instead, Campbell is likely going to be counted upon to fill a special teams role this year. That will be a necessary given the fact that the team lost special-teams standout Nate Stupar in free agency. Much the same can be said of Jones, who shined on special teams during his first three season at LSU.
If they don’t win starting jobs, Wheeler, Weatherspoon and Worrilow could also play key roles on special teams to help pick up the slack lost from outbound free agents like Stupar, Kroy Biermann and O’Brien Schofield. Yet Wheeler and Weatherspoon have only seen limited reps on special teams over the past few years and Worrilow hasn’t really been asked to pull his weight there since the start of his rookie season in 2013.
So it’s likely that the Falcons would probably get better value and production from their rookies in that oft-underrated third phase of the game, which is just another incentive to try and not rush either Jones or Campbell into the starting lineup before they’re ready. But given that the team is looking for a major upgrade at this position group in 2016, they won’t hesitate to turn the keys over to either rookie if they are deemed to be better options than the veterans.
Also in the mix to help pick up the slack on special teams and potentially earn a roster spot because of it is fourth-year veteran LaRoy Reynolds. Similar to Stupar, Reynolds possesses the versatility to play multiple positions within Quinn’s scheme, having worked as a 3-4 inside linebacker for the Chicago Bears as well as a reserve on the strong side for the Jacksonville Jaguars last year.
Reynolds is expected to get his reps at middle linebacker this summer, but his true value will be on special teams. However he’ll need to show enough competence on defense that the team would be comfortable playing him in the event of injuries to starters ahead of him.
Backup strong-side linebackers Tyler Starr and Ivan McLennan will also need to showcase special-teams ability to help boost their stock making the team. Working against both players is the fact that the team seems to have a glut of competent strong-side options already on the team. Should the team opt to keep Beasley, Reed, Upshaw and Wheeler on the roster, neither Starr nor McLennan would stand much of a chance of seeing reps on regular defense unless there were multiple injuries. Thus why it’ll be important that both prove themselves indispensable on special teams. Also showcasing a little pass-rush ability should they get the occasional rep at defensive end in camp will also enhance their stock when cuts are made.
Much of the same could be said of undrafted rookie Torrey Green, who was primarily a situational pass-rusher for Utah State the past few years. He’ll have to show himself a quick study at linebacker and also showcase that he can pull his weight on special teams. Fortunately for all three players, they remain eligible for the practice squad and it’s the most likely avenue for any one of them to stick this year.
The linebacker position is going to be one of the few position groups that features fairly wide-open position battles at multiple positions. While other position groups will feature competitions this summer, nearly all cases exhibit a clear-cut favorite to win the job. That is not quite the case at linebacker, where it could be more of a toss-up with who will begin the season starting at middle and weak-side linebacker, as well as on the strong side to a lesser extent.
The Falcons will have to make decisions at all three spots either to go with the more battle-tested veterans that haven’t thus far expired a ton of confidence with their recent subpar play, or roll the dice on upside with the more unknown commodities in the form of rookies like Jones and Campbell. It will be a tough decision, but by summer’s end the Falcons are hopeful there will be clear choices to be had through the power of competition.