Free Agent Focus: Linebacker
The Falcons primary goal this off-season at this position will be re-signing Curtis Lofton. Lofton is by all indications going to be one of the team’s highest priorities this off-season to keep, if not the highest priority among their 17 free agents. But there have been recent reports that while Lofton should be back in Atlanta in 2012, his role could change.
Those reports come from Len Pasquarelli, who indicates that the Falcons could perceive Lofton more as a two-down situational linebacker than a full-time everydown player. If that is the case, and the Falcons are successful at retaining Lofton, it could mean that they will be looking for more help at the linebacker position on the open market.
If the Falcons pull Lofton off the field in passing and nickel situations, they will need to find a player to replace him. That player could be Stephen Nicholas, but that seems unlikely since this team has over the years done their best to limit Nicholas’ role on passing downs. Unless Mike Nolan envisions something where Nicholas pass-rushing ability is added to the mix along with coverage duties. That does make some sense if the Falcons do plan to employ a mix of 3-4/4-3 looks, with Nicholas and Weatherspoon being their two best blitzing linebackers.
But the Falcons might also want to look at potentially adding an outside linebacker that can be more of a factor in coverage. The Falcons have had their issues covering the really good tight ends that populate the NFC and NFC South specifically in recent years. Collectively, Jimmy Graham, Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen, and Kellen Winslow combined for 33 catches for 365 yards, and 4 touchdowns this year in their combined 8 games against the Falcons. Particularly with Graham, if the Falcons can do a better job containing him, it will go a long way to trying to get over that hurdle that is beating the Saints on a consistent basis. The Falcons should be looking at options to help combat this issue. If the team opts to not keep Mike Peterson, then they will have a perfect opportunity to add another outside linebacker to the mix that can help in coverage to replace him.
A player that immediately should shoot to the top of the Falcons list is Wesley Woodyard. He played under Nolan in 2009, where he served as the Broncos nickel linebacker. He has served in a similar capacity since, until this year he started 7 games at both weakside and middle linebacker. Woodyard played safety in college, and also one of the Broncos special teams captain. He is a player that is likely to be one of their higher priorities to re-sign this off-season, but the Falcons could show enough interest to try and lure him away since there’s no guarantee that he will start in Denver.
Another name from Nolan’s past could be Manny Lawson. Lawson was a player that the 49ers used a #1 pick on in 2006 under Nolan. He never developed into the feared pass rusher while there, but did develop into a capable coverage guy due to his athleticism. When Jim Harbaugh took over and brought in a 3-4 scheme that required the outside guys to be able to bring pressure, Lawson was cast off and settled in Cincinnati, where he had a nice season. Lawson’s newfound experience in the 4-3, plus his familiarity with Nolan’s 3-4 could make him an intriguing option that like Nicholas could be used both in coverage and as a pass rusher.
Another option could be Lawson’s teammate Brandon Johnson. Johnson, is a tall, athletic linebacker that has spent time as the Bengals nickel linebacker over the past few years and has been capable in that role. He probably would not be the Falcons top option, but a decent alternative if they cannot get Woodyard or Lawson.
A player that the Falcons might be holding out to get, would be Carolina’s Thomas Davis. Davis might be cut this off-season. Davis has torn his ACL in each of the past three years, having appeared in only a total of 9 games. But a healthy Davis, who is a Georgia native, is exactly the type of player that would provide what the Falcons are looking for on the outside: a guy that can help contain this top tight ends. The Panthers may opt to cut him, and obviously the health of his knee would prove to be a major concern. But it wouldn’t hurt to take a look-see if that day comes, and if the Falcons can get him at a discount, it could be a low-risk, high-reward scenario if Davis finally proves healthy.
Obviously, the Falcons will make it their first priority to keep Lofton. Mike Peterson’s status could be up in the air, especially if the team does intend to target another player that can provide more help in coverage. But this is definitely a position worth stabilizing for the team in free agency.