I have to give it to the Atlanta Falcons. In just one offseason, they have transformed from the 21st ranked run defense to the 3rd best. That is quite a turnaround, in part thanks to the contributions of some new linebackers. There is a big difference from last year. They can tackle. They can plug the run. They can even hit pretty well.
The problem is that they still are not very good.
The starters in the base defense are Brooks Reed, Paul Worrilow, and Justin Durant. That is a whole lot of slow.
Reed transitioned from a 3-4 OLB to playing the SLB spot in Quinn's 4-3, and has looked competent as a starter. The biggest problem is that Reed missed the first three games of the season. Reed has returned, but has still not even played half of the defensive snaps when he is active. It is a little tough getting a great feel for what Reed can do. He has looked pretty good plugging the run, and has held his own in coverage. However, his pass rushing skills have failed to transition to a new scheme.
Another of Atlanta's free agent priorities, Durant has struggled to stay healthy and to make impact plays. Durant has played more than 14 games in only one out of his previous eight seasons, and in that time has failed to light up the stats sheet. Through 301 snaps this year, Durant ranks 68th out of 73 4-3 OLBs by Pro Football Focus. I am not sure if Durant is quite that bad, but he has, at best, flashed averageness.
Worrilow looks improved since 2014. But not enough. While I think Pro Football Focus might rank Worrilow too low, he is 103rd out of 114 ILBs. It is just another year seeing that Worrilow is probably best fit in a limited role. His lack of speed and strength is just tough to overcome.
We might be biased with Stupar (check out his mailbag this week and every week at the Falcoholic!), but this guy has been impressive. He played THREE snaps all of last year. THREE. This year, with only 151 snaps, Stupar is PFF's 5th best OLB. Stupar may have made more impact plays this year than all other linebackers on this roster.
While he is still in a rotational role, Stupar has earned the shot at more snaps.
Bartu is apparently still on the team. He has played in five to seven games, and made 11 to 12 tackles, depending on your source. I have not noticed him on the field, and if you told me he was cut after 2014, I would probably agree with you.
It is hard to say too much about Wheeler. He has played only 50 snaps for the Falcons, and 49 of those were in one game. He has a decent résumé but has not been a play maker in a few years. Can he become an important part of the defense? Yes. Will he? That seems unlikely.
The sum up
The Falcons predictably do not have an intimidating group of linebackers. The team signed two mid-level free agents, with an average age of 29, and are starting an UDFA at middle linebacker. Atlanta is desperately lacking speed at the position, and has limited impact players on the roster. Despite those shortcomings, the linebackers have improved drastically since last year.