The Falcons linebacker position had its ups and downs in 2012. First-year starter Akeem Dent was erratic in his first year as a starter. Stephen Nicholas got off to a good start, but his play petered off over the second half of the season. And Sean Weatherspoon dealt with injuries and was not the consistent impact player on the field when he was healthy that he was in 2011.
The Falcons could opt to shake up this position in the off-season, but I don’t think that will be a major goal this spring. Weatherspoon will certainly be back to anchor this position and the hope will be that in his second year under Mike Nolan, he can start to play at a higher level. Weatherspoon is a fast, rangy playmaker that is very good in pursuit against the run. But too often last year, he was forced to take on blocks due to the Falcons porous run defense and it affected his ability to make those plays.
Dent also struggled taking on blocks and defending the inside run. That was an area that was a strength while he was at Georgia. He did a much better job this year playing sideline to sideline and defending the run outside the tackle box. As he gets more comfortable and experienced with his role in the middle, there should be improvement.
Nicholas is a good, hard-nosed run defender, but his inability to cover tight ends was an issue the Falcons dealt with all year. He wasn’t alone in that regard, as Weatherspoon also blew a number of coverages against tight ends. But because of those issues, the Falcons probably will return to Nicholas being more of a two-down defender, and trying to mix Dent into the nickel subpackage. Dent has better upside there because he has better hips and flexibility to turn and run with receivers and backs.
But one can also expect the Falcons to look for outside options to help improve their coverage ability. Mike Peterson, while still a solid run defender, is a free agent and probably won’t be back. He was only brought back this past year due to the injury to Lofa Tatupu. The team is likely to look for a player in the draft and/or free agency to replace him, preferably one that can help out in the nickel.
Right now the Falcons depth here is untested with Robert James, Pat Schiller, and Matt Hansen being the only backups under contract. So adding a veteran in free agency makes sense. Someone like Peterson that can play both inside and outside, and also contribute on special teams. A rookie that might be drafted could be a player that projects to playing the strongside with the hopes that either this year or next he can push Nicholas for his starting job.