Linebacker has historically been a position of strength for the Falcons. From Tommy Nobis on to Jesse Tuggle, Atlanta has trotted out some of the best linebackers in the league. Unfortunately, that's not true at the moment.
In a down year for Sean Weatherspoon, the Falcon linebackers were far from outstanding in 2012. Stephen Nicholas was a solid but unspectacular starter and Akeem Dent was much the same by the end of the season after a rough starter. For depth, the team had a creaky Mike Peterson and (somehow) Robert James. It was not the finest year for an illustrious position, that's for sure.
This year will likely bring at least one more draft pick to the mix, but for now, the Falcons have three potential starters, an intriguing story who is quite an unknown and a former UDFA who will be trying to fight his way up from the practice squad. Let's break down everyone.
Starter: Sean Weatherspoon
2012 stats: 95 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 pass deflections, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble
Look, a down year for 'Spoon is still a pretty good year. It's just not the kind of year he's capable of having.
'Spoon didn't make significant strides in coverage or as a run-stopper in 2012. He remains an incredibly useful, versatile player who can be extremely disruptive. The trick is finding consistency, and that was the challenge throughout 2012.
In an ideal scenario, 'Spoon improves a bit, Mike Nolan uses him well and he's an absolute gamechanger, one that helps mask some of the other defensive weaknesses this team is likely to have.
'Spoon is one of the most talented players on this roster. There's no reason he can't put it all together and have a season no one can ignore in 2013.
Starter: Akeem Dent
2012 stats: 65 tackles, 2 pass deflections
Dent is what he is: A solid run-stopper who isn't particularly effective on passing downs. He can still improve—he's just 25—but I don't expect huge strides. Generally speaking, you'd want to start him as a two down player in the NFL.
Still, that's useful, particularly in a defense that has struggled against the run. Dent tackles well and is a good athlete for the middle linebacker position, but he's not going to do a lot of damage as a pass rusher. If the Falcons upgrade their linebacking corps a bit, Dent could play all three linebacker spots in relief of starters and probably do quite well in the role. For now, though, he's basically Curtis Lofton-light at middle linebacker, and he's a capable enough starter that I'm not too worried. He does need to continue to improve to keep his job beyond 2013, and if the Falcons went with a stud middle linebacker early, he'd be out of a job.
Starter: Stephen Nicholas
2012 stats: 97 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 pass deflections, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble
Nicholas isn't the best tackler. He isn't always an asset against the pass. But in my humble opinion, he's a bit of an underrated player.
As a full-time starter for the first time in his career, Nicholas was a heads-up player who was always involved in the play. The tackling issues overshadowed a lot of the good he did, but Nicholas has good natural range and actually might be capable of better production as a pass rusher if he's used in that capacity more often. The real challenge for the Falcons is finding a nickel package player, because Nicholas's four deflections and interception aside, he's not really an asset on passing downs. Dent wouldn't seem to be a huge improvement.
There are weaknesses to his game, weaknesses he's unlikely to overcome at age 29. The Falcons aren't exploring linebacker additions in the draft by accident, because Nicholas probably is not viewed as a long-term starter. Still, he had a nice 2012, and he should be a solid starter once more in 2013.
Reserve: Brian Banks
Banks is a great story and was once one of the best high school linebackers in the country. Given that it's been almost a decade since we could say that, I can't reasonably tell you Banks is going to be great or not so great or anything in between.
Chalk him up as a total unknown until we see what he does.
Practice Squad: Patrick Schiller
Schiller is a sound tackler and a good athlete. Beyond that, we don't know much about what he can bring to the table, though his college reputation is more as a run-stopping thumper than someone who excels in pass coverage.
This is a surprisingly weak position. 'Spoon is great and will likely have a nice rebound year, Dent and Nicholas are starting-grade players with significant holes in their game and both Banks and Schiller are basically unknowns. The Falcons need to add at least one piece to the position through the draft, whether it be an Arthur Brown, a Sean Porter or someone else entirely. They need more athleticism the whole way around, and they definitely need a linebacker or two who can defend the pass.
Given all that, hard not to give this position a similar grade to DE.