Out of all of the breakdowns I've done thus far, this one promises to feature the highest grade average. The Falcons are quite simply stacked like Tetris at linebacker, which bodes well for our defense in general next year.
Join me as we roll with K-Brook, M-Bol, Stevie Nickels and the rest of the crew, after the jump.
OLB Michael Boley: Whatever his faults are off the field, Boley only has one setting on the field: Destroy. He pursues quarterbacks like they just stole his watch and charges at offensive linemen with such velocity that they are reduced to loose clouds of particles. When someone once said "something wicked this way comes," they were talking about Michael Boley. And so on.
While you can argue that Boley isn't the best linebacker in the league, he's certainly one of the most complete. There are very few holes in his game, whether you look at his ability to cover a tight end or simply force a quarterback to contemplate his impending doom. If he stays healthy, he's a near lock to amass 80 tackles, 5 to 10 sacks, a couple interceptions and a few forced fumbles. He'll do all of this while constantly trying to improve, as he has done each year he's been in the league thus far.
Still underrated, Boley isn't just the Falcons' best linebacker. He's also their best player, and legal troubles aside, that doesn't seem likely to change. Get ready for another year of the Michael Boley Crush N' Annihilate Show, folks.
Final Grade: A+
MLB/OLB Keith Brooking: Brooking is an interesting case. He will always be remembered as one of the classiest Falcons ever to take the field, and he's also been one of their best players for a very long time. I'm sometimes a little baffled at how hard fans come down on Brooking (including, often, myself) because he's declining. What exactly did we expect?
Brooking is better suited to the outside at this stage in his career, as running backs who power up the middle have proven to be his Achilles heel. While he was once a less physically dominant version of Boley (i.e. extremely well-rounded), Brooking's skillset has taken a hit in general. Far from being dominant, Brooking now is best considered a serviceable starter on the outside and a mediocre one up the middle. His range just isn't there anymore.
That being said, he's likely to start and should look a little better this season if the team is wise enough to roll him out. If the defense is better up front, that would be an added bonus. Still, as much as I love him, it's hard to grade Brooking that highly.
Final Grade: B-
MLB Curtis Lofton: You'll hear a few grumblings and mumblings about playing Curtis Lofton in the middle over Keith Brooking, but there's no reason to believe that he isn't the real deal. With good lateral range and the ability to punish those heading up the middle of the field, he's got the ability to be at least a solid middle linebacker for the next eight to ten seasons. When Brooking is clearly better outside, why would you start him anywhere else?
Lofton's major advantage over Tony Taylor (who I like a great deal) is that he's a far more physical player. He's not the world's fastest guy, but he's plenty fast to play up the middle. The coaching staff coveted Lofton precisely because he fits into the smart, blue collar vision they're looking to instill into this team. He'll make his mistakes in the early going, but there's nobody I'd rather see here down the line.
No better time to start looking at him than right now, either.
Final Grade: B+
OLB Stephen Nicholas: Nicholas isn't very likely to start this year. Unfortunately, he's last regime's draft pick and last regime's favorite, and it remains to be seen whether or not he'll get a fair shake from the new guys. That's partly based on the fact that Nicholas isn't going to blow anyone away with his play, of course.
Stevie Nickels is fast. He's like Demorrio Williams in that he's speedy and undersized, but he's got the potential to become a much more complete linebacker than D-Mo ever was for the Falcons. He will need to get stronger to impress Mike Smith and crew, because I suspect they view a guy his size as more of an edge rusher (ala Kroy Biermann) than a true starting linebacker. Still, someone's going to have to take over when Keith Brooking goes to that big retirement party in the sky, and Nicholas is probably the best option on the roster.
Even if he never steps up to become a starter again, he's a great fourth linebacker that offers better straight speed than most. A valuable piece, that Stevie Nickels.
Final Grade: C+
MLB Tony Taylor: Taylor has a reputation as a brainy sort of fellow, which is probably why he's managed to stick around. He's listed as 3 inches shorter than Nicholas and three pounds heavier, so he isn't particularly huge. He's also not the world's hardest hitter, a fact that will likely help keep him behind Lofton on the depth chart. It's hard to overtake a guy who has tools in spades when you've got a rather limited set of them.
Still, Taylor would be exactly the kind of guy you'd want to run your defensive plays through. I think he's go an excellent shot of sticking around as a reserve, maybe running a season or two with a starting unit, and ending up as a coach in this league. For now, I'm hoping he'll give Lofton or Brooking a good fight and provide quality depth for the team. He could also be very valuable on special teams. Given that, I think I'll grade him as a backup.
Final Grade: C+/B-
OLB/DE Kroy Biermann: Get it? It's because his name is Biermann, which sounds like Beerman, which like Duffman?
Anyways, Biermann is currently listed at DE and Robert James is listed at OLB, but I think you're more likely to see Biermann at OLB and James at safety. Biermann's primary value is as a guy who can rush off the edge, slip through blockers and stop a play from happening in the backfield. Smith and Comrade Dimitroff seem very fond of the idea of a pass rush specialist, and Biermann's speed and elusiveness makes him perfect for that role. His use is still very limited, though.
Final Grade: C-
Analysis: With this crop, you've got your starting-caliber linebackers, you've got your solid backups and even a specialist or two. There's nobody in this group that I believe will be truly weak, and guys like Tony Taylor or Stevie Nickels have a good shot at contributing above and beyond our expectations.
So even if this season turns out to be a dark menace looming in our memories for years to come, we ought to be able to enjoy the play of our linebackers. If nothing else, that's something to look forward to.