In the article discussing which players could fit at linebacker for this team back in February, I talked about the team looking at SAM linebackers that could be upgrades over Stephen Nicholas in coverage. But since I wrote that article, perhaps it’s not coverage ability that really concerns the Falcons. Perhaps pass rush ability will take priority for the Falcons.
I’ve come to this conclusion thinking why the Falcons worked out Jerry Hughes. Perhaps it’s due diligence and the Falcons are interested if Hughes can make the transition to defensive end in the pros. But the reports indicate the Falcons worked him out at linebacker, and I have no reason to doubt those reports.
So that got me thinking about whether Hughes would be a good fit here in Atlanta. If you’ve read my scouting report on Hughes, I didn’t think much of his chances of sticking in Atlanta as anything more than a situational pass rusher.
But I’m starting to change my stance. Because instead of the team looking for a linebacker that can be an upgrade over Nicholas in coverage, maybe they are trying to maximize their pass rush potential in order to find a player like Brian Orakpo. Orakpo split time at outside linebacker and defensive end for the Redskins this past year and proved very productive in that role (11 sacks). When the Falcons go to the nickel package, Nicholas is pulled off the field. Obviously if the Falcons replaced him with a player better in coverage, then that player could stay on the field. But the Falcons are going to have to pull someone off the field in nickel situations in the front seven to make room for the extra cornerback.
They don’t want that player to be Curtis Lofton, otherwise it makes the team susceptible to the run. Because opponents will just force the Falcons into nickel situations and just run the ball out of three and four-wide sets. This happened quite a bit when Ed Hartwell was the middle linebacker. And I’m sure the Falcons want Mike Peterson (or his successor) also to be the other nickel linebacker.
So then the question comes how does the SAM linebacker get work in nickel situations? Rushing the passer. He can play end, spelling whoever is the starter at left end and play on passing downs. This is exactly what Orakpo did last year, playing as a stand-up linebacker on first and second downs and then putting his hand on the ground on third downs.
Does Hughes fit this mold? He definitely gets the job done as a situational pass rusher. But the concerns about Hughes is whether he is going to be an impact defender as a stand-up linebacker when playing the run and the occasional times he has to work in coverage. Orakpo didn’t have much success in that realm, but obviously there is an acceptable amount of trade-off when you can get 11 sacks. Personally, I think South Carolina’s Eric Norwood is a better fit for the Falcons since he’s much more developed as a run stopper and coverage guy having played in space at linebacker the past two years.
Last year, I wasn’t that high on Clay Matthews because I thought he didn’t fit too well in our scheme. The Falcons reportedly showed considerable interest in Matthews last year, and at the time it didn’t make a ton of sense to me since I didn’t expect him to get a lot of opportunities as a pass rusher in our scheme. He went on to have 10 sacks for the Packers last year.
But now I’m much more open to the Falcons drafting a “tweener” at linebacker that may traditionally be viewed as a better fit in the 3-4 than 4-3.