The 19th-ranked Falcons player is linebacker Stephen Nicholas. Click here to see the scoring system used to devise these rankings.
Total Score: 56
Player Grade: 57 out of 100
Teams he could start for: 16 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 1 out of 32
Teams he could find role on: 26 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +1
Positional Bonus: +3
Nicholas could potentially start on half the teams in the league. Mainly because he’s a more versatile player than he’s often given credit for. Nicholas possesses underrated pass rushing skills, and is a capable, physical run defender. He does his best work when he can play close to the line of scrimmage and come downhill. As a pass rusher, there are a few 3-4 teams that he could potentially line up on the outside and rush the quarterback.
Where Nicholas is limited is in coverage. It was an area that was never a strength of his due to stiff hips and less than ideal range. But now that he is 30 years old, Nicholas struggles even more. Those struggles were very apparent last year as the Falcons were routinely carved up in coverage by tight ends. That isn’t all on Nicholas’ shoulders, as fellow linebacker Sean Weatherspoon had his share of struggles alongside safety William Moore. But simply put, the Falcons overexposed Nicholas last year as an every down player, a role he had never assumed in his Falcon career since earning the starting strongside spot in 2009.
If the Falcons can get more contributions from Akeem Dent this year, then Nicholas can settle back into a more part-time role. While Nicholas has his limitations, he is a player that the coaching staff can trust. He plays his assignments and gives excellent effort every snap. The bonus that he is also a capable special teams player also means that even if he’s not getting reps on regular defense, he still finds ways to contribute on Sundays.
His status in Atlanta beyond 2013 is up in the air. He only has another year or two which can be considered “peak” seasons. Both Keith Brooking and Mike Peterson were age 32 when they began their final years in Atlanta and Jacksonville, respectively. After those years, both teams opted to part ways given the declining skill of both linebackers. And frankly, Nicholas simply hasn’t been quite the players that either Brooking or Peterson were prior to their dismissals. But even if 2013 is his final run, Nicholas has had a solid career in Atlanta. If he manages to start 15 games, then he’ll have 62 career starts in a Falcons uniform, exceeding former fourth round pick Henri Crockett by one. Which will be the most by any fourth round pick selected by the Falcons since Moe Gardner back in 1991, who started 85 games in a Falcons uniform.