Finding the Fit: Linebacker
Linebacker is another area on defense that the Falcons should try and address.
Curtis Lofton had what could be called a breakout year, leading the team with 130 tackles. So the Falcons appear to be fairly solid in the middle.
But one of the few flaws in Lofton’s game is his struggles in coverage. He simply is a much better run defender (arguably one of the best in the league) than pass defender.
And much of those duties in coverage fell on outside linebacker Mike Peterson last year. Peterson got off to a great start last year, combining for 36 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, and 5 passes defended in the first 5 games. But the rest of the year, he did not record anymore sacks, forced fumbles, interceptions, and just had 2 passes defended.
The dip in production likely indicates that the aging Peterson (turns 34 in June) is getting near the end of the road. So the Falcons should be on the lookout for a replacement that can not only be an impact run defender, but also an impact pass defender.
On the other side, the team has Stephen Nicholas, who had a nice debut year as a starter. His strengths lie in rushing the passer and playing near the line of scrimmage, as almost every play Nicholas made last year seemed to have at or behind the line of scrimmage. But Nicholas struggled in coverage throughout last year. So the Falcons might be on the lookout to try and upgrade his spot with a guy that can play in coverage, which would allow them to limit Lofton to playing mostly on run downs.
Depth is also an issue with this position. Undersized, but hard-working Coy Wire serves as the backup at all three positions. Wire is a capable reserve, but he’s not an ideal option because he’s more an asset on special teams. Outside Wire, all of the remaining reserves have very limited experience.
1. Coverage – The Falcons are going to need to target guys that are more polished in coverage, able to play in either man or zone. The Falcons used Peterson a lot in man coverage, although Lofton during his nickel situations played a lot more zone.
2. Range/Speed – This is an important factor that applies not only to coverage, but also to defending the run. Does he have the ability to make plays all over the field. Range often is related to speed, and the ability to play sideline to sideline.
3. Tackling – Lofton is considered by many to be one of the best tacklers in the league. If the Falcons are going to match up linebackers with him, they also have to be sound tacklers.
4. Instincts – This trait tends to be more critical when it comes to guys playing in the middle. But it is still important for guys on the outside, as they need to be in the right position to make plays.
5. Toughness – The Falcons play an attacking scheme, and will be looking for guys that like to mix it up. They’ll prefer guys that play with some aggression as Mike Smith wants to have a hard-nose, hard-hitting defense.
The first name on the list is Missouri’s Sean Weatherspoon. He’s about as good a fit as you’re going to find for the weakside linebacker position. Weatherspoon is fast, solid in coverage, and has great range. He’s strong despite not being especially big, aggressive, and likes to hit. He and William Moore formed a formidable defensive duo while they played together at Mizzou, and the Falcons could be thinking about reuniting the pair on their defense.
Most list Navorro Bowman as the next best 4-3 outside linebacker. Bowman was very productive while at Penn State, and is similar to Weatherspoon because of his speed, range, and toughness. But he had some off-field issues while at Penn State, which could scare off some teams including the Falcons.
Georgia’s Rennie Curran is an undersized guy, but plays hard, fast, and is an excellent tackler. His lack of size will probably drop him in the draft from where his talent level should indicate. His style of player however is more indicative of a middle linebacker, so he might not project as smoothly to the outside as others.
Daryl Washington is another guy that played inside at TCU, but might get a look outside. Washington is very good in coverage, with good speed and range.
Like Washington, Roddrick Muckleroy (Texas) played in the middle. But he’s fast and rangy, likes to hit and was consistently making plays for Texas the past two years.
A player that is linked with the Falcons in many mocks is his Texas teammate Sergio Kindle. Kindle is more a classic fit for the 3-4 scheme because of his size and pass rush potential. But he could fit as a SAM linebacker here in Atlanta, particularly when you consider how much the team blitzed last season. Kindle has loads of potential as an athlete and run stopper, but may take some adjusting to a more traditional 4-3 scheme like what the Falcons employ after playing a hybrid end/linebacker role at Texas the past two years.
A.J. Edds (Iowa) would also represent a good challenger for Nicholas at SAM linebacker. He played in a very simple, conservative Iowa defensive scheme. He played a lot of coverage there lining up against tight ends and receivers in the slot. But he’s a smart player that is big, can tackle, and is steady.
The Falcons haven’t shied away from undersized linebackers in recent years, by drafting Robert James and signing Coy Wire. So Dekoda Watson (Florida State), Rico McCoy (Tennessee), and Keenan Clayton (Oklahoma) could be right up their alley. Despite his smaller build, Watson was a solid pass rusher for the Seminoles and has speed to burn. McCoy excelled in Monte Kiffin’s Cover-2 scheme installed at Tennessee this past year. Clayton was essentially a coverage guru for the Sooners, and could move to safety in some schemes.
Two inside linebackers that have the speed and quickness to move outside also include Kion Wilson (South Florida) and Boris Lee (Troy State).
Another player the Falcons could evaluate is Florida’s Brandon Spikes. He played in the middle at Florida, but his polish in coverage, speed, and playmaking instincts could also project well at either outside linebacker position.
The Final Verdict
If the Falcons are looking for a WILL that can replace Peterson in the very near future, they need look no further than Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon is probably good enough that he could start and be an effective starter as a rookie, and it’s possible that he’s good enough that if the Falcons did draft him, they would move Peterson to SAM linebacker just to get him on the field.
Bowman is also a good fit on the outside, although I think he is probably a step or so lower than Weatherspoon in terms of his potential in Atlanta. But after those two, there aren’t many WILL linebacker options that really jump out.
Muckleroy, Washington, and Curran certainly would fit and all certainly have the upside to be productive starters. Curran is probably the best run defender of that trio. Washington is the best in coverage. And Muckleroy is the rangiest of the three.
After that, no one really appears as a slam dunk as a prospect that could sit for a year behind Peterson and be ready to start in 2011.
If the Falcons are looking for a SAM linebacker that can push Nicholas and also be an upgrade in coverage, then Brandon Spikes or A.J. Edds are probably the best candidates. Spikes also could play the WILL, but doesn’t have the ideal speed that matches up with some of the other candidates.