Camp Battles 2012: Linebackers

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Sean Weatherspoon

The Falcons linebacker position should see some solid competition this summer during training camp. One of the starting positions will be determined this summer, as well as the team could be looking at infusing their depth with a lot of youth.

One player that does not have to worry about his job is Sean Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon will be counted on becoming the anchor for the Falcons unit. Weatherspoon emerged as one of the league’s top 4-3 outside linebackers last year and had a Pro Bowl caliber season. He hopes to continue that this year with another strong season where he’ll actually get a chance to play in Hawaii. He’ll be a core piece of the Falcons defense under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. With the additions the team has made at cornerback, it is expected that the Falcons will operate a lot out of the nickel as their base defensive package. It will mean that Weatherspoon’s ability in coverage will be a key asset to have in such situations. He’ll be counted on largely to cover the many solid tight ends that now dot the league.

Who will line up beside him in those nickel situations will need to be determined via competition this summer. The Falcons have three candidates that will be fighting to be in the nickel package. Strongside starter Stephen Nicholas and whoever wins the middle linebacker spot: Lofa Tatupu or Akeem Dent, will be in the mix for the role. Nicholas’ job on the strong side is safe, but he was marginalized for much of last year in part because of injuries. Also his snap count was reduced by about a third last year because he was taken off the field in nickel situations. If he wants to return to becoming a regular contributor, he’ll have to show Nolan that he can be more than just functional on passing downs, he’ll need to be good.

The competition for the starting spot at middle linebacker however will get the bulk of the attention this summer. Lofa Tatupu is coming off a year where he sat out the season and will compete with second year player Akeem Dent. Tatupu is the savvy veteran while Dent is the fresh, young upstart. This should be a fairly even and fair competition as the team is simply looking for the best player. More than likely, as the season goes on, both players will get playing time. But this summer, one player is expected to emerge as the guy that should get the brunt of the work. Before injuries sapped his ability, Tatupu was one of the league’s better middle linebackers. He’ll hope to show that those injury concerns are behind him, and answer the questions about whether he still has the speed and range to be an effective starter.

Dent should fare a little better in that arena, as he’s the more athletic of the two. But the key for Dent is that he’s going to have to show a certain awareness that is necessary to be able to play in the middle at the NFL level. It remains to be seen if he has developed that after one year of minimal work on defense. Dent was never lacking in the instinctual aspects of the game during his days at Georgia, but it’s a fairly big leap to the NFL level. His predecessor Curtis Lofton took nearly half of his rookie season before he really started to get comfortable in that area.

As with Nicholas, one way that either player can distinguish themselves from the other is by performing well in coverage. That could be the tie-breaker. Dent has the athletic ability to better match up in coverage, but Tatupu’s experience gives him the edge on awareness in knowing where he should be and where his assignments should take him. It is going to be an interesting competition.

What also needs to be determined, is which player if any of the linebackers will dawn the green dot on their helmet in order to receive information from the coaches and make the defensive calls on the field. That role was previously held by Lofton, and among the current players, only Tatupu has experience doing that. It remains to be seen if that will be a factor in camp competition. But it is also not unheard of for teams to give that role to safeties if need be. Weatherspoon would make a strong candidate since he’s a sure bet to be an everydown player at linebacker.

Regardless, those four players are virtual locks to make the final roster. Because of their need to provide depth elsewhere on the roster, the Falcons have been known to only carry six linebackers on their 53-man roster during the regular season. That policy is likely to continue this year. The two veteran incumbents for those spots include Spencer Adkins and Robert James. Adkins got reps late last year as an injury replacement for Nicholas and had his moments. Adkins has good speed and can be an effective attacking linebacker, but his hips and flexibility are less than desired, which can get him in trouble in coverage. He is the safer of the two. James has only garnered marginal playing time in four years on and off the practice squad. In fact, in four summers with the team James has been on the team’s opening day 53-man roster only once. It makes his foothold on a final roster spot tenuous at best.

Because of that, it gives the team’s group of undrafted free agents a better than average chance to make an impression and win a roster spot. Outside linebackers like Jerrell Harris and Max Gruder probably have the slightly better odds since they will be filling a reserve spot on the outside, but inside guys like Rico Council and Pat Schiller also will be in the mix. Likely their chances will come down to  who showcases the best on special teams because if any of them make the team, their role will be entirely in that arena. All four have similar athleticism, although both Harris and Council tested slightly better at their respective pro days this past spring. Harris and Gruder have the added benefit of playing in some 3-4 schemes while in college, which could help them grasp schematically some of the things that Nolan will try to do in camp.

With the departure of Eric Weems, Dent becomes the team’s top special teams player. And if he wins the starting job, then it’s likely that he’ll get a lot less reps on special teams. It will be important that one of these young guys can step up and fill the void left by him if that situation arises. Otherwise the team could be scouring the waiver wire come the end of August, looking for someone that can.

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