Training Camp Preview: Linebackers

The Falcons linebacker corps looks to have one major addition in the middle in rookie Curtis Lofton and hope that Lofton brings an attitude change in the locker room as well as an impact between the hashmarks.

The Falcons hope Lofton can become the centerpiece of a defense that looks to improve under Mike Smith’s watch. The team also hopes it has struck gold with Lofton and he becomes like some recent rookie middle linebackers and immediately has an impact. Lofton has good aggressiveness, likes to hit. He lacks sideline-to-sideline speed, which is why middle linebacker may be the best fit for him instead of outside linebacker, but he has the versatility and experience to play all three spots on the NFL level. He is capable in zone coverage, but can be a liability when put into man situations due to his lack of ideal speed and quickness. Lofton will be pushed for the starting job, but his chief challenger will be Tony Taylor.

Taylor’s only real experience last year on defense came in the final few quarters of the season finale against the Seahawks. Prior to that, he had spent the first 15 weeks of hte season on special teams duty. Taylor impressed the Falcons coaching staff last spring and summer, bouncing former 3rd round pick Jordan Beck from the roster. But it remains to be seen if he is just a nice backup or actually has real NFL potential. The latter could be showcased if he gives Lofton a real run for his money this summer.

With Lofton likely taking over the middle, that means Keith Brooking will move back outside, a position he hasn’t played full-time since 2004. But while outside linebacker has always been considered Brooking’s natural position, his time may have passed. Brooking’s speed and quickness are becoming marginal at his advanced age, and it remains to be seen if he can hack it in coverage, areas where he has really struggled in the past even when he was quicker. Brooking has never been a hitter, but he’s constantly around the ball. But the question remains does he have enough in the tank to make a difference on the field or is his only real value to the team come as a veteran role model for the young linebackers?

Since Brooking and Lofton aren’t exactly the ideal players a team would want in on passing downs, the Falcons may need to look hard at developing a nickel linebacker this summer. That task could fall on Stephen Nicholas. Nicholas was originally drafted to be Michael Boley’s backup on the strongside, but due to an injury to Demorrio Williams last spring, spent most of his reps at weakside linebacker. He’ll likely return to the strongside this year. Nicholas flashed ability early last year and looked on pace to potentially unseat Williams as the starter at the midpoint, but an injury halted his progress and he got sparing reps on defense in the second half of 2007. He hopes to pick up where he left off, and if he can impress in coverage might be able to earn reps in certain nickel packages.

Also pushing for that nickel job is rookie Robert James. James is undersized, but plays bigger than he is. And his lack of size doesn’t hurt him in the speed department, which should make him capable at matching up with running backs and tight ends a bit better than some of hte players ahead of him. But most likely, James will be relegated to special teams duty this season as the team works on getting him in the weight room.

One player that doesn’t really have to worry about his reps is Michael Boley. Despite his off-field run-in this off-season (facing battery charges against his wife), Boley will be looked upon to be a leader on this young defense. His off-field issues should give him even greater incentive to take a more active role in the leadership of this defense. Boley is solid in coverage, has excellent speed, hits hard, and is more than capable of coming off the edge on a blitz. He was one of the few bright spots on the team’s defense last year, and they really hope there is a repeat performance this season.

Also in the mix at linebacker are Travis Williams, Cameron Vaughn, and Ike Brown. All three aren’t likely to get much of an opportunity to impress on regular defense. Among them, the keepers will be the guys that perform well on special teams. Williams has the edge due to his experience. He tallied 7 special teams tackles in 6 games last year.

The Battles

Lofton vs. Taylor – This battle is really only nominal. This is Lofton’s job to lose and if he’s not ready, the team is more likely to move Brooking back to the middle (replacing him with Nicholas at the WILL spot) than starting Taylor.
Nicholas vs. James – The winner of this battle will get the opportunity to get reps on passing downs.

The Falcons will likely keep seven linebackers. There are probably only two spots really open to competition since Brooking, Boley, Lofton, Nicholas, and James are unlikely to be released. Taylor and Williams are the front-runners for those two remaining openings. Lofton, James, Williams, and Brown are the only players eligible for the practice squad.

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Aaron Freeman
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