The Scouting Combine starts this week in Indianapolis, where all 32 NFL teams will descend to watch over 300 of the top draft prospects jockey for draft position.
For fans of the Atlanta Falcons, the most important day to pay attention to or watch Combine coverage will be Sunday, as that is the day that defensive linemen and linebackers will be working out.
The Falcons top needs this offseason include addressing weaknesses in their front seven. While there is little question as to the Falcons’ dire need to upgrade the caliber of edge-rushers on the roster, their needs at linebacker also cannot be overlooked.
The first move of the Dan Quinn era will be remembered as signing a linebacker in Allen Bradford last week, which is certainly a sign that the team recognizes some weakness at the position.
Previous Staff Lacked Confidence in Falcons Linebackers
It was very telling last year how much confidence the Falcons’ coaching staff had in their linebacker corps by insisting on their base package being the 4-2-5 nickel sub-package. And it’s hard to disagree with that assessment based off how the Falcons linebackers played in 2014. If the goal was to get the best 11 players on the field at once then playing with an extra defensive back probably was their best bet.
And by midseason, the coaches had reached a new conclusion by employing a lot more dime sub-packages with six defensive backs, leaving just one linebacker on the field. That proved a further indictment of the team’s linebacker play in 2014.
Even though playing six defensive backs is not ideal when trying to defend the run, it’s hard to fault the coaches given the struggles of their linebackers last year.
Middle linebacker Paul Worrilow earned team captain honors last season for his leadership in the locker room, but his play on the field was anything but stellar. Worrilow graded as one of the worst linebackers in the NFL last season according to premium website Pro Football Focus, ranking 59th out of 60 inside linebackers that played at least 277 defensive snaps.
Worrilow Disappointed in 2014
It was no doubt a disappointing year for Worrilow, who showed considerable promise as an undrafted rookie in 2013. While Worrilow graded poorly in coverage, ranking 58th among inside linebackers, it was really his poor run defense that was most troublesome.
Worrilow routinely struggled to defeat blockers and missed open-field tackles. Those were areas where Worrilow needed to show the greatest improvement from a year ago, but he regressed in 2014. Where Worrilow shines is from the neck up as a smart, instinctual player that rarely found himself out of position last year. The problem was essentially his play from the neck down. When he was in position to make a play, he simply didn’t do it enough times because of his struggles to match up physically. Worrilow’s poor play against the Detroit Lions in Week 8 really epitomized those struggles.
The new Falcons brass will have to make a decision on whether they consider Worrilow to still be the middle linebacker moving forward. It won’t be an easy decision.
New Falcons Staff Will Target More Physical Linebackers
The new coaching staff led by Quinn, defensive coordinator Richard Smith and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich may prefer a different option, perhaps a player that matches up better physically. Worrilow is a smart player with obvious leadership abilities, but because of his limited physical skill-set, he may be better suited to being a backup and/or situational player than an every-down starter at linebacker.
In Seattle, Quinn was blessed with Bobby Wagner at middle linebacker. While Wagner is not a unique physical specimen, he certainly possesses a far greater degree of athleticism and physicality than Worrilow has shown in his brief NFL career.
In Denver, Smith had a series of different linebackers over the years in the middle. During his first season with the Broncos in 2011, the team employed Joe Mays as their starting middle linebacker but would often pull him off the field in passing situations for Wesley Woodyard. The following year, the team replaced Mays with former Falcon Keith Brooking, a player that is an easy comparison for Worrilow. Unfortunately, Worrilow probably more accurately resembles the Brooking towards the end of his Falcon career as opposed to the younger version that earned five consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl from 2001-05.
In 2013, the Broncos made the switch to Woodyard in the middle, but he would depart via free agency this past year. The Broncos then plugged in Nate Irving, but he was then lost midway through the 2014 season with a knee injury. His replacement was Steven Johnson, who basically served as a two-down player for the remainder of the season.
Nate Irving Could Follow Richard Smith to Atlanta
Irving is a free agent, and might be a worthwhile target in free agency. His knee injury likely will keep his price tag down. Irving fits better in that traditional run-thumper role and was effective for his eight starts this past year. Through Week 9 when Irving went down for the count, he graded as Pro Football Focus’ 17th best inside linebacker, in comparison to Worrilow’s ranking of 53rd out of 55 linebackers up to that point in the season.
But durability has been a concern for Irving, dating back to his time at N.C. State where he missed an entire year due to being involved in a car accident. Irving’s knee injury this past year was initially thought to be a relatively minor MCL tear, an injury that often doesn’t require season-ending surgery. However, more time revealed a more serious injury that landed Irving on injured reserve.
Another positive for Irving is that he has the versatility to play strong-side linebacker. That was his role primarily in 2013 as he started seven games, including the playoffs, on the strong side as a replacement for Von Miller.
The Falcons could sign Irving with the intention of him pushing Worrilow at middle linebacker, but should the latter win the job, Irving still offers the ability to kick to outside linebacker where the Falcons don’t have a clear-cut starter right now. Not to mention, he was one of Denver’s more productive special teams performers with 16 combined tackles in 2012 and 2013.
Currently looking at the Falcons roster, their best strong-side option appears to be second-year player Prince Shembo. But Shembo is still learning the linebacker position after spending his entire career at Notre Dame rushing the passer as a defensive end and outside linebacker in the 3-4. While Shembo showed promise as a rookie, it was clear after the mid point of the season when the Falcons opted to employ more dime looks, that the coaches felt he wasn’t quite ready to maintain significant reps.
It certainly will be interesting to see what, if any, growth Shembo shows in 2015. But the Falcons should not count on him to be a major contributor this season. Shembo is simply an unknown commodity, and if he does step up, that should be considered a bonus.
Weatherspoon’s Future in Atlanta In Doubt
The other linebacker position is going to be another one to watch. While the team has already expressed their desire to retain unrestricted free agent Sean Weatherspoon, the sixth-year veteran remains a question mark. Weatherspoon is coming off a torn Achilles tendon, an injury that once was considered a death knell to a pro career. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore as the Falcons have seen recoveries from Corey Peters, Brent Grimes and Kroy Biermann in recent years to suggest that there is a reasonable expectation that Spoon can have a solid 2015 season.
But that Achilles wasn’t Spoon’s first trip to the trainer’s table. 2011 marks the only season where Weatherspoon didn’t miss at least three games due to injury and he’s missed a total of 25 over the past two seasons. The bottom line is that even if Weatherspoon successfully recovers from his Achilles tear, there’s a high probability that some other nagging injury could keep him out of the lineup for an extended period of time in 2015.
Because of that, the Falcons will almost certainly seek to re-sign Weatherspoon to a one-year “prove it” deal, meaning that his ability to earn big money in 2016 will hinge on his ability to stay healthy in 2015.
Even if the Falcons do manage to successfully keep Weatherspoon in Atlanta this year, they have to look at contingency plans in case he doesn’t stay healthy. While Worrilow and Joplo Bartu could make decent stopgap options for the team in the event of another injury to Spoon, the Falcons might be better served planning for the long-term future at the position.
Ulbrich Could Target Former UCLA Protegé Kendricks
That’s where Ulbrich may figure more into the mix. After spending the past three years coaching at UCLA, there is an easy and obvious projection for the Falcons draft Spoon’s potential successor: Eric Kendricks. He is considered one of the better linebacker prospects in this year’s class and most are projecting him to be a second-round pick and potentially an option for the Falcons with the 42nd overall pick in the draft.
How Kendricks performs this weekend at the Combine might have a lot to do with that. Some projections have Kendricks going late in the first round.
Kendricks’ older brother, Mychal, plays for the Philadelphia Eagles and played at California in college. He started 42 games over his career and is UCLA’s all-time record holder in tackles (481). He probably projects best as a weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, but possesses enough traits and ability to also play middle linebacker.
Similar to Irving, that ability to potentially fit in multiple roles would make Kendricks attractive to the Falcons. The Falcons could draft Kendricks initially with the expectation that he is insurance in the event of another Weatherspoon injury, but should the latter make a healthy and successful return to Atlanta, Kendricks could slide inside and become the long-term option at middle linebacker.
Falcons Could Target Several Linebackers Early in Draft
Kendricks likely won’t be the only linebacker the Falcons have their eyes on during Sunday’s Combine workouts. Shaq Thompson (Washington), Denzel Perryman (Miami) and Paul Dawson (Texas Christian) are three more linebacker prospects expected to be selected in the first two rounds of the draft. How these players might stack up will be influenced by their performances at the Combine.
Thompson is currently the highest-rated of the group, with questions about whether his small stature means he will project better as an NFL safety than linebacker. But that might not be a huge obstacle for the Falcons. Smith had success with those “tweener” types in Denver, as both Woodyard and Danny Trevathan were undersized linebackers out of Kentucky. In fact, Woodyard began his college career as a safety much like Thompson. Prior to his time with the Broncos, Smith coached the linebackers of the Carolina Panthers, where he had another tweener in Thomas Davis, who played safety at Georgia before making the permanent move to linebacker in the pros.
Like Kendricks, Thompson also has an older brother that once played in the pros and also played college ball at the University of California. Cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson played two years for the Broncos, where he crossed paths with Smith, prompting another connection.
Perryman is more of the two-down enforcer that few would confused as a safety like Thompson. But he would certainly bring a physical element to the middle of the Falcons defense that has been missing since Curtis Lofton manned the middle from 2008 to 2011.
Dawson is similar to Kendricks in that he’s an undersized guy, but potentially possesses the ability to play outside or inside in a number of different schemes. His size and playing style compares favorably to another ex-TCU linebacker in Daryl Washington, who has shined as a 3-4 inside linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals the past few years.
Combine Can Impact Linebackers’ Draft Position
The Combine won’t determine where guys go, but it can help guys solidify their status. NFL.com’s Mike Mayock often terms the event a “crosscheck.” It means that teams are mostly looking for confirmation of what they saw on film. For example, if a player looks fast on film, then he should run fast in Indianapolis this weekend. But should something unexpected happen, such as a fast player running slower than expected, then teams will dive back into the film in order to ascertain the truth. Then it’ll be a question of whether that particular player just had a bad run, or is he not quite as explosive as the team initially expected. And should a player have an exceptionally bad run, it will raise concerns about his work ethic as it did to current Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict a few years ago.
But what the Combine can be very good at is creating separation within a bunch of players within position groups. For the aforementioned linebackers, they’re all projected to go somewhere between the middle of the first round and the end of the second round. How Kendricks, Thompson, Perryman and Dawson perform on Sunday could solidify their statuses somewhere within that range.
For example, Thompson wants to play outside linebacker in the NFL, but it will hurt his cause should he weigh in under 230 pounds. While that alone may not drop him out of the first round, his weight could mean the difference between a dozen or so draft spots, and that equals money. Last year’s 20th overall pick, Brandin Cooks received about $2 million more in guaranteed money on his rookie contract than the 32nd overall selection in Teddy Bridgewater.
The other three linebackers are vying to be first-round picks, and hitting certain measurables and testing well with help them go a long way.
Another example is for a player like Dawson, who some have raised concerns about his character. Dawson made a passionate defense of himself in a recent draft diary for USA Today, but he’ll have to win over teams during the Combine interviews.
Right now, the smart money would be that the Falcons would prefer prospects like Kendricks and Thompson. Ulbrich’s coaching connection to Kendricks makes him an obvious fit and Thompson’s similarities to players that Smith has coached in recent years probably makes him a likely target. And both players are noted for their high character.
Perryman is also a prospect noted for his high character, but faces bigger questions about whether or not he has the athleticism to play every down at the next level. If not, then he’ll be hard-pressed to find himself being drafted in the first round.
Dawson has less question marks in that regard, but a strong athletic performance on the field as well as winning over folks in the interviews could allow that on-field success to speak for itself.
And should both Perryman and Dawson succeed in impressing teams like the Falcons on Sunday, they could potentially shoot to the top of the list of potential options should the Falcons look to make a major upgrade at linebacker this offseason.
The Falcons already have some pieces at linebacker that they can continue to work with in the hopes that they develop, but there’s almost certainly going to be a few more added within the next few months.