I know I skipped over the defensive line positions in terms of looking at prospective free agents that could help the Falcons, but there are a lot of players to watch to drink it all in. So I’ll just instead skip ahead to the linebacker position won’t take a huge amount of effort to break down.
The Falcons need at linebacker centers around their desire to get better in coverage. It arguably cost them a chance at the Super Bowl after tight end Vernon Davis carved up the Falcon defense in the NFC Championship Game, following a year where tight ends seemed to do the same every week.
The Falcons are expected to challenge Stephen Nicholas for his role in the team’s nickel subpackage. The primary challenger probably will be middle linebacker Akeem Dent, but with Mike Peterson hitting free agency and unlikely to return, there is a definite void that could be filled this off-season. And it makes the most sense if that is a player that also can help out in coverage.
It makes sense if the Falcons wait until the draft to address this position. One of the many issues with the Falcons’ coverage at the linebacker position is a lack of speed. While Sean Weatherspoon, the unit’s best player does not lack in that arena, he too struggled at times to match up. Particularly with New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles, who worked him over in Week 13 last year. Upgrading in that area makes a lot of sense to try and give the team a linebacker that can deal with Sproles. That way, the Falcons can utilize Weatherspoon more effectively to cover tight end Jimmy Graham in those Saints matchups, which may prove ultimately more fruitful than previous attempts.
The simple fact is that linebackers in the draft are going to be younger, sprier, and ultimately more explosive than any veterans that have already accumulated wear and tear in the league. If the Falcons want someone with speed that can potentially match up with Sproles, their best options likely lie in the draft.
But that doesn’t mean that the Falcons can’t find veterans worth signing. With Peterson likely departing, the Falcons have a need for depth. Currently their backups are Robert James and Pat Schiller due to the release of Matt Hansen over the weekend.
If the team is looking for someone that could specialize as a nickel linebacker, they might look at Bryan Scott (Bills), Rocky McIntosh (Rams), or Jonathan Casillas (Saints). Scott has had an interesting NFL career, going from a former Falcons second round pick in 2003 at cornerback that was quickly moved to safety. But he did not shine there and was traded to the New Orleans Saints in 2006 for left tackle Wayne Gandy. He bounced to Tennessee until finally landing with the Bills at the start of the 2007 season. Injuries to their linebackers in 2009 forced them to plug him in the lineup as an in-the-box safety functioning as a linebacker. He would make the transition to that position permanent in 2012 after serving two years as their primary nickel linebacker. It would be interesting to see if his career ended up back in Atlanta. Scott is functional in coverage, but starting to slow down with age. He’s underwhelming as a run defender and thus needs to be hidden as a situational player. He’s an upgrade over Nicholas in coverage, but not by a huge degree and would just be a short-term solution since he turns 32 in April.
McIntosh still has good speed at age 30, and has played both outside linebacker positions in a 4-3, as well as inside linebacker in a 3-4 giving him versatility and flexibility. That makes sense considering the Falcons defense under Mike Nolan utilizes concepts from both schemes. But McIntosh has never really been a good player, just bordering on effective for much of his career. He would add experienced depth, but would not mark a significant upgrade in coverage. While his speed makes him a better matchup against the likes of players like Sproles and Graham, he’s never played with great physicality or awareness to think he makes an impact in that role.
Casillas is one of the faster linebackers in the league but he’s never been a consistent coverage player despite having the ability to cover a lot of ground. He would be a decent option given his familiarity against the Saints, but more than likely would be underwhelming if asked to contribute in a key role.
If the Falcons are looking for veterans similar to McIntosh that can replace Peterson in depth roles rather than guys that could push Nicholas as starters, a few players with roots in Georgia could suffice. Will Witherspoon went to the University of Georgia, and has had a long, productive 11-year NFL career. Once known for his exceptional speed and range, he’s started to slow down now at age 32. He’s not much help in coverage anymore and similar to Peterson would be fairly limited in his value on the field. But he has experience starting at all three positions in a 4-3 defense and could help provide some veteran leadership. Daryl Smith is a native of Albany, Georgia and spent several years as the anchor of the Jacksonville Jaguars defense. He served under Falcons head coach Mike Smith while he was the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. That provides familiarity, but Daryl Smith is not the playmaker he once was. He missed most of the 2012 season with a groin injury, only being activated from the injured reserve in Week 16. That week, he looked old against an explosive New England Patriots offense, an opponent the Falcons are set to face in 2013. Smith has started and produced at all 3 linebacker positions in Jacksonville, as well as played inside linebacker when they tinkered with the 3-4 a few years ago. He might have a bit left in the tank to provide a suitable competitor to Nicholas, but more than likely it’s a lateral move.
Oakland’s Philip Wheeler is another local candidate (hailing from Columbus and went to Georgia Tech) that could be an option for the Falcons. Wheeler was an impressive fill-in starter for the Raiders last year as they dealt with off-field issues surrounding Rolando McClain. Wheeler has good speed and showcased that at times as an effective blitzer. His 12 quarterback hits last year led the league among 4-3 linebackers not named Von Miller. That could present an interesting wrinkle for Nolan on his third down blitz packages. But Wheeler isn’t a great cover guy in spite having good straight-line speed, he doesn’t have great hips. But he could certainly be a player that could challenge for a role in the Falcons starting lineup at strongside linebacker.
Another former Falcon that could be on the team’s radar is ex-Giants linebacker Michael Boley. Boley was a key player for the Falcons defenses in 2006 and 2007, but with the arrival of Mike Smith and Brian VanGorder in 2008, Boley’s effort and production took a precipitous drop. Boley was ultimately benched late in the year in favor of Coy Wire, but retained his duties on passing downs and in the nickel. Boley went to New York following that year, and was more good than bad over the past four seasons there. He still remains a solid coverage linebacker, but has grown less and less effective as a run defender. He’ll turn 31 at the end of August, and is not as spry as he once was. But if reduced to more of a nickel specialist for the right price, he would be a short-term upgrade over Nicholas. The question would be does Mike Smith still have a bad taste in his mouth lingering from 2008 with regards to Boley, or were his issues potentially mitigated by the departure of VanGorder in favor of Nolan?
Boley hails from Southern Miss, as does Gerald McRath (Titans). McRath is another Georgia native (Powder Springs) that has good physical tools. He missed all of 2012 with a torn patellar tendon is knee, but he’s still fairly young (turns 27 in June) that could be had at a bargain due to his injury history. But he’s not a great coverage player due to stiff hips, and is not anything special in regards to his special teams contributions making him more of a body than an asset in Atlanta.
Manny Lawson (Bengals) played under Mike Nolan in San Francisco. A first round pick in 2006, he never quite developed into the pass rusher envisioned. Lawson has a long frame, but lacks the speed or explosiveness to really impact off the edge. And he is limited in coverage for similar reasons. While he could add depth due to his familiarity with Nolan, at this point he offers less than what Jonathan Massaquoi, Kroy Biermann, or even Lawrence Sidbury could bring to the table as an edge player.
Kaluka Maiava (Browns) is a decent starter that has enough speed and ball skills to be effective in coverage. But you wouldn’t want to put him on an island against Jimmy Graham and expect him to be able to get the job done. He could add depth to the Falcons and plays with toughness. But in truth, besides being a decent backup to Weatherspoon on the weakside, his primary value in Atlanta would likely be only on special teams.
A former-teammate of Scott is Nick Barnett, who was recently cut by the Bills. Barnett turns 32 in May, and still has the smarts and experience to quarterback a defense, but he’s limited in terms of his ability to match up in coverage. He was worked over by the Patriots’ combo of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Danny Woodhead in their two matchups last season. He’s also coming off an unspecified injury, as the reason for why the Bills cut him was due to a failed physical. So if the Falcons pursued him they would have to question the nature of that injury. But they’d also be forced to hide him on third downs. While Barnett might give the Falcons porous run defense a boost, he wouldn’t help their ability to get better in coverage. Barnett’s primary value would be as a mentor for Dent in the middle.
Overall, there are no slam dunk options for the Falcons in free agency. All of the players mentioned above could help the Falcons to different degrees, but none to a level that should require a big price tag. If the Falcons were to sign any of these players, besides maybe Wheeler or Boley, none should be paid significantly more than the veteran mininum.
If the Falcons were going to make a splash at this position, one possible target could be Carolina Panther linebacker Jon Beason if he is released. Beason is coming off his second consecutive season where he has wound up on injured reserve in September. He tore his Achilles tendon in the season opener of 2011, and this past year he was sidelined due to a knee injury. His last game was against the Falcons in Week 4. Beason, when healthy, is a similar player to Sean Weatherspoon. Both possess good speed and range to make plays in space and are capable in coverage for similar reasons. Beason has had varying degrees of success over the years covering Tony Gonzalez, and is certainly familiar with players like Graham and Sproles. Beason isn’t going to shut down either player, but has fared about as well as one could hope when matched up against them. The problem with Beason is he is prone to injury. He’s not as reliable a run defender either as he once was. While he would definitely represent an upgrade over Nicholas in coverage abilities, he may not be worth long-term investment due to the durability concerns. He was overpaid with a $50 million contract given to him by Carolina following the 2011 lockout. He won’t make nearly that much on the open market this year, but he’s also not going to be cheap. If the Falcons were to be go after Beason, it might have to come at the expense of Nicholas. The Falcons would free up only about $500,000 against this year’s cap by cutting Nicholas this off-season. If they were to designate him as a “post-June 1 cut,” that cap savings would be about $2.5 million, but would force the Falcons to eat $2 million in dead money towards their 2014 cap. Teams are allowed to release up to two players prior to June 2 and designate them as “post-June 1 cuts,” which means they are treated as if cut after June 1 cap-wise. Post-June 1 cuts have their accelerated bonuses (i.e. dead money) spread over two years instead of the typical one.
Would Beason be worth it dumping a more proven commodity in Nicholas? Beason is definitely a better football player and nearly two years younger, but is not a safe bet to play a full season. It would certainly be a gamble, but potentially worthwhile one for the Falcons.