Things were kicked off with a scouting report on middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Now its time to look at someone that may be playing beside him this year: Stephen Nicholas.
Pros: He is a physical, hard-hitting linebacker that thrives near the line of scrimmage. Does his best work when he is allowed to attack upfield. Can make stops in the backfield. Shows good burst and quickness off the edge as a blitzer and pass rusher. Can even line up with his hand in the dirt on occasion. Shows good speed and can make plays against the run both in pursuit and at the point of attack.
Cons: Lacks ideal quickness and burst and struggles in coverage due to lacking hips and awareness. Best when he can keep things in front of him, and too often gets turned around in coverage. His tackling ability tends to be less effective when he’s playing in space.
2010 Outlook: Nicholas is a nice fit at the strongside linebacker for the Falcons in their base package. The Falcons seem to covet a physical run defender at the position that can offer ability as an upfield pass rusher. But Nicholas needs to improve in coverage if he hopes to be a player that can go from a situational player to an every down player that even gets work in the nickel.
As injuries mounted last season in the secondary, the Falcons were pressed to utilize Nicholas more and more in coverage, which is not his strongest suit. He doesn’t have the quick hips or flexibility that one looks for in a player that is good in coverage. He certainly has room to improve and should with more experience. But he’s not a guy that you want entrusted with covering a quality tight end on the opposing team. His lack of awareness there also means that good tight ends will have little trouble making catches in traffic even when he has reasonably good coverage, but he’s rarely in a position where he can make a play on the ball.
But for the time being, the Falcons will prefer Nicholas to be a player in their base package. Ideally, when he does get reps in passing situations, he’ll be utilized more as a blitzer and pass rusher since he is very effective in that role.
Nicholas is in a battle this summer to retain his role as a starter with Sean Weatherspoon and MIke Peterson. The Falcons appear intent on getting Weatherspoon numerous opportunities to win the starting job, likely leading to a decision whether to start Nicholas or Peterson at the other outside spot. Nicholas is the best fit the team has at the strongside position, so he might have a slight edge when one accounts for putting the right players in their best situations. Also his youth, and the probability that he’s a better long-term asset than Peterson means that he could hold a slight edge in the competition.
But even if the Falcons relegate him to the bench, it’s likely that he won’t have to wait long to be promoted back into the starting lineup, with Peterson entering a contract year. Nicholas too is in the final year of his deal, but his youth and development potential means he should be retained. But even if Nicholas works as a reserve this season, the Falcons certainly will give him reps in subpackages, most likely to take advantage of his blitzing potential since he is the best of the linebacker unit.
In Summary… Long-term, Nicholas probably isn’t considered an essential piece of the Falcons defense. Eventually the Falcons may look to a more athletic linebacker with greater ability in coverage. But in the meantime the Falcons should get a capable starter that is hard-worker, and has the sort of edge that makes him a good fit with the physical group of linebackers the team has flanking him in Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon.