Coming into the 2013 season, there are a lot of questions surrounding this Falcons roster. The potential of two new starters on the offensive line scares some. Others still wonder where the pass rush will come from. However, many have agreed that there is a solid concern over our linebacker situation. Many fans wanted the Falcons to use a draft pick to find another outside linebacker, as the memories of a scorched Stephen Nicholas in the playoffs danced through their memories.
But is the concern overblown? Certainly, the question of depth needs to be answered, but are we really hurting with our starting 3? Let's look at what Pro Football Focus Advanced stats tell us about our linebacking corps.
The first year starter had a rough start to the year, grading either average or negatively for the first 10 games. However, by his 11th game, Dent began showing improvement, including some strong performances against Detroit and Tampa Bay later in the season.
For the year, Dent graded at +1.6 against the run, -.6 against the pass and -1.3 when rushing the QB, with a -1.8 overall score. He had 5 missed tackles, but also had 26 stops (tackle with a negative impact on the offense). While he took about half the number of snaps that Nicks/Spoon took, Dent did get better as the season progressed. If he can continue his progress into 2013, he has the potential to be a decent MLB with an outside shot to be a quality starter. If he can do that, we'll be fine - as the MLB in a Nolan defense is not as important as OLB.
The much derided Nicks may be the most unfairly criticized of our linebackers. In 2011, many Falcons fans felt he was the weakest of our strong LB corps, with Lofton and Weatherspoon typically getting the most attention. And his 2012 season didn't help to quiet those doubts.
For 2012, Nicks graded out at -6.7 in coverage, +2.5 against the run, -0.4 while rushing the QB with an overall score of -4.8. Those numbers strongly reflect what Falcons fans were seeing on the field. Even though he had 38 stops during 2012, that was matched with 9 missed tackles.
But unlike Dent, we can look back at 2011 to see if 2012 was truly reflective of the player that Nicks is or can be. And that's where the numbers tell a much different story. In 2011, Nicks graded out as 0.0 in coverage, +2.5 against the run and +2.1 rushing the QB with a +5.3 overall score. While he only had 16 stops in 2011, he also had only 2 missed tackles. As many fans thought, he WAS the weakest of the trio in 2011, but that didn't make him bad. He actually performed pretty well in 2011, and is a better run stopper than given credit for.
Keeping in mind that Nicholas was playing injured in the playoffs, Falcons fans should be hopeful that a healthy Nicholas can return to his 2011 form. If he can play at that level, he will be a quality starter again - capable of stopping the run and occasionally rushing the QB. While he may never be fantastic in coverage, if he's healthy, he can be serviceable.
Spoon was given the defensive headset when Curtis Lofton left for the Saints last year, a symbol of his emerging leadership on defense. Many fans thought 2012 would finally be the year that 'Spoon rise to pro-bowl caliber levels of play. Sadly, that just wasn't the case. In fact, of our three linebackers, it was Weatherspoon who regressed the most.
For 2012, Sean graded out as +3.6 in coverage, -12.3 against the run and +5.0 rushing for an overall score of -2.1. He had 39 stops during the year, but had an atrocious 13 missed tackles to go along with it. These stats would normally be alarming for our premiere linebacker, but like Nicks, 'Spoon spent a good bit of 2012 injured - and his stats took a hit because of it. The missed tackles are indicative of his style of play (he's a thumper) and an indication that he really needs to work more on tackling guys instead of trying to force turnovers.
For 2011, though, 'Spoon was a beast - and actually graded out as one of the best OLBs in the league. He scored +4.1 in coverage, +12.6 against the run and +4.5 rushing for an overall score of +17.9. He also had 59 stops, though his 15 missed tackles are still a sore spot. But overall, Weatherspoon was an absolutely great player in 2011 with nearly unlimited potential.
As with Nicks, Falcons fans should hope for a fully healthy Weatherspoon. When healthy, he's as good as any linebacker in the league - excelling in coverage, run stopping and even pass rushing. For 2013, he could be a bigger factor in our pass rush and if he can return to his 2011 form, he may finally get recognition league-wide for his play.
With a full year under Nolan, our starting linebackers will enter the 2013 season fully prepared for the defense they will run this year. Dent will have the benefit of having started a full season, while Nicholas and Weatherspoon will start the season fully healthy. If Dent can continue his progress, and his teammates can return to their 2011 form, the Falcons will field a remarkably strong linebacker corps in 2013. While depth is a concern, there is no reason the Falcons can't field a very good linebacking corps this year - without having to touch the roster.