Camp Battles ’10: Linebacker
The brunt of the camp conflict at this position will come from Falcons top pick Sean Weatherspoon.
The Falcons drafted Weatherspoon to be an upgrade in speed and coverage abilities on defense. Thus far, they have cross-trained him at both outside spots, but it remains to be seen which position he will primarily play at this summer.
It would seem that strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas is the likeliest of the starting trio to lose his spot in the starting lineup. Nicholas is a capable blitzer and able run defender, but is a liability in coverage. But at the same time, throughout last year weakside linebacker Mike Peterson also struggled in coverage. Peterson got off to a fast start last season but his played tailed off after the first month. One presumes that Weatherspoon is considered the long-term option to replace Peterson, so it would make sense if the Falcons tried to have him push there immediately, rather than facing the potential of shuffling the linebackers down the road.
There is also the possibility that Weatherspoon could become the starting weakside linebacker, and the team move Peterson to the strongside. But regardless of how the team shuffles the linebacker position, it must start with Weatherspoon having a strong summer. But his draft status gives him a leg up in competition. The Falcons haven’t had a first round pick not start the season opener under MIke Smith and Thomas Dimitroff.
Curtis Lofton is locked in the middle, and the team will be looking to see him make some improvements in coverage this summer.
Coy Wire may lose his status as the top reserve to either Weatherspoon, or whichever incumbent starter is benched. But he still has a firm grasp on a roster spot. He can play all three positions and is a valuable special teams performer.
Because of the versatility of Wire, Weatherspoon, and Peterson, the Falcons presumably can get away with keeping six linebackers on the roster. But normally 4-3 teams keep seven. So that means that there should be two more roster positions left available. The front runner for one of those spots would appear to be Spencer Adkins. Adkins only appeared in five games last year, but the team is looking to see him make further strides this summer. Also in the mix is Robert James, but due to a four-game suspension to open the regular season, he’ll have to have a really strong showing this summer for the team to keep him on. That looming suspension opens greater opportunities for undrafted rookies like Weston Johnson and Bear Woods. Both players will have to shine on special teams, as well as make some impact plays defensively in the preseason.