Evaluating the Falcons: Linebackers
Linebacker, as far as the roster goes, is probably the most set position. The Falcons have experienced veterans and youth talent worth developing, so I don’t see any significant additions, just like there were none a year ago.
Michael Boley and Keith Brooking will definitely be starters next year, but exactly where is not sure. Boley isn’t going to be moving from his strongside spot in 2007, but Brooking has the ability to start at either middle or weakside linebacker.
The biggest determining factor will probably not be Brooking himself, but the play of Ed Hartwell and/or Demorrio Williams. Hartwell was signed 2 years to be the man in the middle, but injuries have hampered him and he has been largely ineffective when he has managed to play. Some suspect he could be released, but I doubt it. His collegiate coach, Brian VanGorder has taken over the Falcons linebacker position, and I’m sure Hartwell knows his performance in 2007 will have a significant impact on his future with the Falcons and in the league as a whole. A good year, and he stays in Atlanta. A bad year or another injury-riddled one, and he’d be very hard-pressed to find a starting job for the rest of his career.
Williams is a restricted free agent, and could be traded if the right deal is met. But there rarely is a shortage of decent outside linebackers either via free agency or the draft, so it’s doubtful he’ll be in high demand. He should be back in Atlanta, because he provides such valuable depth considering he can play either outside spots.
Brooking will simply fill in the other spot that either one of those two players does not earn. I’m sure the front office and coaches would prefer Hartwell to be the other guy, but the past two years have shown that the team won’t be missing a lot if it winds up being Williams.
Then there is Ike Reese and Jordan Beck. Both are valuable special teams players. Although Reese hasn’t quite lived up to his Pro Bowl billing. But he is a steady veteran, that is provides quality depth since he can play all three linebacker positions. Some believe he will be cut, but I think his ability to be a nickel guy and utility guy override any perceived failure on special teams. Beck too has not made much impact on defense. He should finally get a chance to push for playing time, and it’s time the Falcons give him an opportunity to showcase his skills. He was solid during his rookie summer before an injury sidelined him for the whole season. If he can pick up from there, he has the makings of a solid pro down the road.
The only reason to make any significant additions this off-season would be if Williams, Hartwell, or Reese are lost. But considering the wealth of needs elsewhere on the roster, making changes here should be the very last thing on the Falcons minds.