The Falcons mildly surprised on Monday when they announced that LB Justin Durant was cut. He was one of the initial signings in last year's free agency, but had an ineffective season where he was frequently injured.
Atlanta now has a big opening at OLB, and will likely look to add more speed by replacing LB Paul Worrilow. Brooks Reed, despite underwhelming in his first year, likely will remain a starter. Those are two pretty large holes for a team with limited draft picks. With few free agent wide receivers, tight ends, and guards, Atlanta may be forced to address those positions in the draft and find a linebacker or two in free agency.
What are Atlanta's best choices, and who makes sense for the Falcons?
There four linebackers are worthy of starting and serious connections to the Falcons.
Denver Broncos ILB Danny Trevathan
This thumper will probably break the bank, but is one of the best, young inside linebackers in the league. Trevathan could play all three downs, and would be a massive upgrade in both talent and speed in the middle of the defense. PFF had him as the 6th best ILB last season, a solid 47 spots above Worrilow. Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith coached up Trevathan during his first three seasons in the NFL, and will likely want to add a stud linebacker to solidify Atlanta's front seven.
Kansas City Chiefs ILB Derrick Johnson
While Trevathan is a young and expensive player, Johnson will be 34 in November. But he is still playing great ball, even grading out better than Trevathan according to PFF. He has been a true every down player, and got his $34 million deal from our very own Scott Pioli. However, Atlanta would need to address the linebacker position soon, and have a young player developing behind Johnson by 2017 at the latest.
Seattle Seahawks OLB Bruce Irvin
Irvin has been linked to the Falcons at least 80 times, and is not only a Dan Quinn guy, but fills a need. While there is some concerning overlap between his abilities and what Reed does, the Falcons have a shot at improving the speed at linebacker while improving the pass rush. Irvin may be a little more expensive, but Atlanta is flush with cap space and devoid of defensive play makers.
Atlanta Falcons OLB Philip Wheeler
This is the easiest option, especially after ESPN reporter said he expects Atlanta to try to keep Wheeler. Wheeler looked like Atlanta's best linebacker coming off the street and playing only a handful of snaps. Give him a full offseason to get in shape and learn the scheme, and he can be a competent addition to the team.