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Stephen Nicholas, A Falcons Retrospective

Stephen Nicholas exits town as a 31-year-old cap casualty. He was much more than that.

Kevin C. Cox

The Falcons released Stephen Nicholas and Asante Samuel, saving several million in cap space and ending the duo's time in Atlanta. I didn't want to let that pass without comment.

We're quick to forget how much certain players have contributed to the franchise when they move on. The NFL is a league where someone is constantly asking "yeah, but what did you do for me today?" We've become fans who ask the same question.

We can debate the relative merits of that approach, but it does tend to obscure past contributions in a way that I think can sometimes be unfair. With Asante Samuel, that's understandable because he spent but two short seasons in Atlanta, even if one of them was a pretty excellent season. With Stephen Nicholas, it's something else entirely.

Nicholas was never a star player at any step of his career, and he entered the league in 2007 as a fourth-round backup linebacker. Over the course of his first two seasons, Nicholas saw time in 29 regular season games, chiefly chipping in on special teams but occasionally seeing the field as a sub. In those days, he was extremely athletic and quickly made a name for himself as a core special teamer.

During that 2008 season, Nicholas was playing every Sunday and then flying to Boston to be with his infant son, who needed a heart transplant. Thankfully his son came out that ordeal with a new heart and a clean bill of health, but you couldn't help but admire how tough Nicholas was after reading this.

As weird as this sounds now, a ton of fans were clamoring for Stevie Nickles to start following the 2008 season. Keith Brooking and Michael Boley were on their way out and the Falcons suddenly didn't look as impressive at linebacker, so Nicholas got the call. He was a 13-game starter in 2009 and put together easily his best season, with 80 tackles, three sacks, three pass deflections and a forced fumble.

He was an 11 game starter in 2010, an eight game starter in an injury-shortened 2011 season and a 15 game starter in 2012. That standout athleticism started to fade after a time, but Nicholas remained a solid linebacker into 2012, when he began to fade a bit. Unfortunately, the lasting memory of Nicholas for many fans will be the way Zach Miller and Vernon Davis abused him in the playoffs, even though he was far from the only player to suffer that fate.

In his last season with the Falcons, Nicholas started only three games as the full-fledged youth movement took over. You never heard him complain about that, because Nicholas was not one to complain about much of anything. It was clear that the Falcons didn't view him as a part of their future plans, and so this cut has been obvious for months now.

Nicholas finishes his career in Atlanta with 378 tackles, eight sacks, 13 pass deflections, two picks and five forced fumbles, with parts of four seasons spent as a starter. For a fourth round pick who wasn't guaranteed anything by the new regime entering in 2008, that's a fine career. We wish him well.

If the question with Stephen Nicholas is "what have you done for me lately," then I suppose the answer is "not a lot." If the question is "what has Stephen Nicholas done for the Atlanta Falcons," the answer is plenty.

Thoughts on his career?