It's time for a clash of the linebackers.
Unlike most of our previous efforts, this one involves a starting job. It pits a young(ish) linebacker with great pursuit skills and a ton of versatility. In the other corner, we have a wily veteran linebacker on the wrong side of 30 who is great against the run and also boasts the ability to play multiple linebacking positions. It's a classic young versus old type of battle.
At stake is one outside linebacker spot. Curtis Lofton is locked in on the middle and Sean Weatherspoon is set to roam outside on one side, so once this particular battle is settled, the Falcons have themselves a starting trio.
After the jump, see who wants to be a contender.
If Coach Smith's love for a player translated into a starting spot, Mo Pete would be the team's strong-side linebacker until he was 70 years old. Thankfully for all of us, that's not a huge factor in the decision-making process for these Falcons.
Still, Peterson is valuable. As a starter in 2010, he piled up 40 tackles, a sack, two picks, five pass deflections and a forced fumble. He's not an asset in coverage at this stage of his career, but Peterson positions himself well and is thus able to get in the way of a few passes. Against the run, he remains a sure tackler and an instinctive linebacker.
Peterson is also a natural leader on the defense, a veteran with no qualms about assuming that mantle. The coaching staff values that immensely, but it's not something he needs to start in order to do.
Peterson's ideal role would be as an early down thumper, someone who gave way on third downs to a younger, more pass-minded defender. But given his advancing age and Stephen Nicholas' long-term contract, I don't know that he'll get that opportunity.
Also, Mike Smith believes he's versatile enough to move around as a backup, so there's that:
"Mike Peterson is a football player,’’ Smith said. "It doesn’t matter if it’s defense, or special teams; he’s going to do whatever it takes to contribute and help our football team win. If you ask Mike he would tell you he can go over to the offensive side and probably play some positions over there as well. You love to have guys like that. He’s a pro. He just loves to play the game of football."
See? Loves him.
Nicholas has a lot to recommend him. He's fast, athletic, plays reasonably well against both the pass and the run and is younger than Peterson. In the end, I expect that will be enough for him to win the job.
The Falcons didn't sign Nicholas to a long-term deal, reasonable though it was, to have him sit on the bench. Whether it's this or next year, he's going to take over outside. And it might as well be this year, because Nicholas is in the prime of his career. It's worth noting that Jeanna Thomas has been at training camp and believes Peterson will start.
If the team views Peterson as versatile, then the argument for keeping Nicholas as a super-sub fades away. He's relentless when asked to chase, as is evidenced by his 78 tackles despite not starting every game of the season, and he's better than average in coverage, in my opinion. Peterson is probably stronger against the run, but given the team's fondness for rotations, Peterson could just come in on clear rushing scenarios anyways.
In the end, I think Nicholas' superior athleticism is a clear advantage for the Falcons.
Who will be the starter? You decide.