Linebacker Pat Schiller was among the Falcons most impressive rookies from last year’s preseason. Schiller was consistently in position when working both versus the run and pass, suggesting that he was deciphering the intricacies of Mike Nolan’s new defense better than many veterans could.
He managed to stick on the Falcons practice squad and would become one of the more memorable aspects of the team’s weekly D-Block video segments, silently taking it all in. He would also be the subject of a good piece in the New York Times, chronicling the beginning of his NFL journey.
While much of the attention will likely fall on fellow linebacker Brian Banks this summer, and understandably so, I think it will be Schiller as the player the organization expects to see make the biggest contributions. Schiller essentially will be expected to replace Mike Peterson. No, not in terms of leadership, as that will be left to veterans like Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon. But Peterson served as the Falcons primary reserve at all three spots last year, garnering reps in goalline situations and earning starts when Weatherspoon was out for a few games during midseason.
The Falcons stress cross-training their players at multiple positions, and while Schiller spent the majority of his reps at middle linebacker last summer, he could easily kick outside to either the weakside or strongside spot. The fact that he was able to show last summer that he was able to get the job done from the neck up means that being position-versatile shouldn’t be a major obstacle going forward.
Ultimately, I think Schiller can grow into a player similar to Chase Blackburn, who had a nice career with the New York Giants. Like Schiller, Blackburn is a former Mid-American Conference standout that went undrafted back in 2005. He made the Giants roster primarily as a special teams player, but was so valuable there that they gave him a four-year contract extension at the end of his second season. Blackburn led the Giants in special teams tackles in each of his first three years, combining for an uncanny 53 stops on that unit. He became the replacement for an injured Gerris Wilkinson at weakside linebacker in 2008. Wilkinson would be replaced by Michael Boley the following year, but injuries to both Boley and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce meant Blackburn would be re-inserted into the lineup at both positions to start 7 games. Following the lockout in 2011, the Giants wouldn’t elect to bring Blackburn back. But Blackburn would be re-signed by the Giants late in the year, and would work as their starting middle linebacker for their stretch run to the Super Bowl, once again proving his value. He would then start 15 games last year at middle linebacker before landing with the Panthers this past off-season, where he is expected to be their top reserve behind injury-prone starters Jon Beason and Thomas Davis at outside linebacker.
Like Blackburn, Schiller isn’t likely to grow into the type of player that will wow you with his defensive production. But he can add valuable depth, and in a pinch can step up and be a capable starter at multiple positions. Blackburn led the Giants in special teams tackles in each of his first five seasons with the team. Similarly, Schiller can help the team on special teams, a unit that is looking for help now that Akeem Dent is the starting middle linebacker. Dent was one of the league’s stand-out special teams players in 2011. And coupled with the loss of Pro Bowler Eric Weems, the Falcons coverage units suffered a bit last year. Robert James was solid last year, but if Schiller, Banks, or another could step in and be as productive as Dent, Weems, or Blackburn were in the past, it would provide a huge boost to that unit.
So again, while Schiller should be in the driver’s seat to be the team’s top backup linebacker, much of his focus should be centering on special teams. The key for him defensively is just to be ready if/when his number is called in the event of an injury to a starter ahead of him. In truth, the Falcons will likely again be heavily reliant on their nickel subpackage in 2013, effectively only playing a pair of linebackers. Should one of the starters go down that likely will be even more the case, as it was a year ago when Peterson was inserted into the lineup. But last year, Peterson managed to still play about 40% of the total defensive snaps in his three starts. Hopefully, the Falcons will be able to get three healthy years from their starters and Schiller can just focus on being the best special teams player he possibly can be. But if not, Schiller should be poised to step up.