Continuing the countdown of the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, let’s break down the ninth best player in linebacker Justin Durant.
To read about the methodology in how these rankings came about, you can click here.
Total Score: 67.5/100
Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 60/100
Teams he is starter: 27 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 10 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 30 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3
While Brooks Reed was the most expensive player the Falcons added to the roster this offseason, one certainly can make the case that Durant was the best player. Clearly, these rankings appear to making that claim.
Durant will be asked to take on the tough task of replacing linebacker Sean Weatherspoon as one of the team’s leaders on the defensive side of the ball. Durant’s experience makes him a good candidate to do so, but his ability as a football player puts him in even a better position.
Durant is coming off one of his best seasons in the NFL last year, producing well for the Dallas Cowboys. Through the first eight games, Durant was leading the team in tackles but then suffered a torn biceps that ended his season.
No stranger to injury throughout his seven-year NFL career, it marked the second consecutive year that Durant ended a season on the injured reserve. But despite the setback, the Falcons clearly saw him as a significant upgrade to their weak linebacker corps.
That is because Durant possesses good speed, range and instincts. He is a capable tackler in the open field with a good nose for the football. He’s athletic enough to cover backs and tight ends as an every-down player and when he’s at peak performance is very reminiscent of the player that Weatherspoon was a few years ago when he was playing at a comparable level.
Durant also possesses versatility, having experience playing all three linebacker positions in a 4-3 defense. He’ll be expected to play the weak side in Atlanta, but the team could easily slide him inside to middle linebacker if they find themselves in a pinch.
The key for the Falcons and Durant is the nearly 30-year old player staying healthy for the first time in his career. Despite the torn biceps being what ended his season a year ago in Dallas, it’s worth noting that Durant also missed two games earlier in the season due to a groin injury.
Durant has experienced a litany of injury issues over the course of his career, missing half a season due to the torn biceps he suffered last year. He’s also missed a total of eight games due to various groin injuries, five to a bad hamstring in 2013, four to a pair of concussions in 2009 and 2011, three to ankle in 2010, two to suspension during his rookie season, two to a hip injury in 2009 and one to a knee as a rookie.
The 2012 season is the only season where he managed to play in all 16 games, earning 14 starts that year thanks to the Detroit Lions opening up a pair of games in their nickel. Yet the Falcons hope that 2015 will be the first year that Durant manages to start all 16 games.
The more games Durant plays, the more opportunities he has to positively impact this defense and transform one of the team’s biggest weaknesses a year ago. In 2014, the Falcons simply didn’t really trust any of their linebackers to perform besides Paul Worrilow, and even he still managed to struggle throughout the year.
At the very least, Durant gives them a player that the team is comfortable putting out there every down, assuming he’s healthy enough to do so.