The Falcons first must address their free agent situation at this position, because it will have impact on the starting lineup. Both Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson are going to hit the open market, and probably that only one will return. The odds probably point to Peterson simply because Nicholas is likelier to get more interest on the open market. If the Falcons had their druthers, Nicholas is probably the better option since he’s younger and adds more value on third downs in coverage and as a pass rusher. But the Falcons also like the veteran leadership that Peterson provides due to the youth they have at the position. Peterson can also play more than one position.
Regardless of the Falcons free agency situation, two of the three starters are set in stone. They will be middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon at one of the outside spots. Depending on which free agent returns will determine which of the two spots Weatherspoon starts at. But Lofton and Weatherspoon will certainly be the Falcons two everydown linebackers playing both in their base set as well as their nickel formation.
If Nicholas is the one that returns, then it’s likely that Weatherspoon moves to his more natural weakside position after playing the strongside as a rookie. If Peterson comes back, then Weatherspoon will stay at the same position. If neither player returns, and that is a possibility, then Weatherspoon will likely replace Peterson on the weakside, and open up an opportunity for rookie Akeem Dent on the strongside.
The Falcons drafted Dent in the third round likely to be an insurance policy in case the team can’t retain Nicholas. The likeliest scenario has Dent being groomed for a year before replacing Peterson next season. Such a plan would then allow Weatherspoon to move to the weakside in 2012, while keeping the seat warm this year. But if neither free agent return, it’s possible that the Falcons thrust Dent into the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
In camp, Dent will likely be worked at multiple positions if not all three, similar to how the team worked both Lofton and Weatherspoon in their rookie camps.
Also with a fairly secure roster spot is veteran Coy Wire. He adds value on special teams, and can perform on nickel downs. His versatility to play all three spots makes him valuable depth for the team.
The Falcons are likely only to keep six linebackers as they did a year ago, to free up a roster spot elsewhere. The versatility of players like Weatherspoon, Wire, and Dent to play multiple positions allows the team to keep one less linebacker than normal. With those three, Lofton, and one of the free agents likely to form five of the spots, it leaves players like Spencer Adkins, Robert James, and Bear Woods likely competing for a single spot.
Adkins probably has the best odds because of his athleticism and proven ability on special teams (9 tackles in two seasons). James has managed to hang on despite only playing in a single game in three seasons with the club, and unless he can make significant strides this summer it’s hard to see him lasting a fourth year. Woods is a potential darkhorse, dependent on how much improvement he’s made from a year ago on regular defense. But he remains eligible for the practice squad which is his likeliest destination if he can’t unseat Adkins.
The chances that trio makes the roster will be reduced if the Falcons manage to keep both free agents. The Falcons may also add bodies via undrafted free agency, although any of those guys will likely only be competing for a practice squad spot.