At this exact moment, the Falcons have one of their strongest linebacker corps in the last decade-plus, if not longer. It has been a long, bumpy road to get here, with a handful of a good players and great seasons along the way.
The Falcons have invested multiple early round picks into the position group over time, including a first rounder (Sean Weatherspoon), two second rounders (Curtis Lofton and Deion Jones), multiple third rounders (Akeem Dent and Duke Riley), and a raft of late rounders and undrafted players. Some of their biggest success stories have always come from that draft haul, though the immortal Mike Peterson and pre-Dimitroff selection Stephen Nicholas played major roles in the early going.
Here’s the full list. Beware, it’s not always pretty.
|2008||Curtis Lofton||Keith Brooking||Michael Boley||Stephen Nicholas||Kroy Biermann||Tony Gilbert|
|2009||Curtis Lofton||Stephen Nicholas||Mike Peterson||Tony Gilbert||Spencer Adkins||Robert James|
|2010||Curtis Lofton||Stephen Nicholas||Mike Peterson||Sean Weatherspoon||Spencer Adkins|
|2011||Curtis Lofton||Stephen Nicholas||Sean Weatherspoon||Mike Peterson||Akeem Dent||Spencer Adkins|
|2012||Akeem Dent||Stephen Nicholas||Sean Weatherspoon||Mike Peterson||Kroy Biermann||Robert James|
|2013||Paul Worrilow||Joplo Bartu||Akeem Dent||Sean Weatherspoon||Stephen Nicholas||Omar Gaither|
|2014||Paul Worrilow||Joplo Bartu||Prince Shembo||Kroy Biermann||Nate Stupar|
|2015||Paul Worrilow||Justin Durant||O'Brien Schofield||Nate Stupar||Philip Wheeler||Joplo Bartu|
|2016||Deion Jones||De'Vondre Campbell||Philip Wheeler||Sean Weatherspoon||Paul Worrilow||LaRoy Reynolds|
|2017||Deion Jones||De'Vondre Campbell||Duke Riley||Vic Beasley||Kemal Ishmael||LaRoy Reynolds|
|2018||Deion Jones*||De'Vondre Campbell||Foye Oluokun||Duke Riley||Kemal Ishmael||Bruce Carter|
Honestly, the biggest success story of those early years was probably Nicholas, a Rich McKay pick who started 50 games (playing in 101 total) with particularly productive seasons in 2009, 2010, and 2012. Lofton was a rock solid run defender and underrated linebacker overall who bolted for the Saints after four years, earning him our eternal enmity, while ‘Spoon was sporadically great but ultimately derailed in a major way by an ever-increasing spate of injuries. Both Lofton and Weatherspoon could have been Falcons great, given their talent, but for reasons outside of their performance on the field it never quite happened.
Still, those groups from 2008-2012 generally had at least two quality starters every single season, allowing the Falcons to stay afloat despite some talent deficits elsewhere on the defense. The major shift happened when the team’s selection of Dent didn’t bear the fruit they thought it would, which turned 2013-2015 into an epoch of Falcon linebacking that is probably not regarded fondly.
In hindsight, the team made some ill-fated decisions. The selection of Prince Shembo was not one we supported when it was made, given Shembo’s uneven game and more crucially accusations of sexual battery and the subsequent death by suicide of a young woman. I should note that Shembo was never convicted of a crime for that, but the mere fact that he was linked to something so serious (and make no mistake, the connections did not seem tenuous) made it surprising that he was even a draft day target for Atlanta. Shembo turned in one solid enough season before he was arrested for aggravated cruelty to animals after allegedly kicking and injuring his girlfriend’s dog. The dog subsequently died, Shembo ultimately settled the case, but the Falcons cut him when the charge first surfaced and his career with Atlanta (and, to this point, in the NFL) was over. Given that Shembo was penciled in as a major contributor and was drafted to be one, the pick represented a disastrous use of a draft selection, and the kind of risk the Falcons (obviously then, more obviously now) shouldn’t have taken in the first place.
While Shembo carved out a major role in 2014, the team infamously started dismantling their group the year before that. Weatherspoon suffered what would become a recurring series of injuries and the team began to phase out Nicholas, resulting in the Falcons starting Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu at linebacker that year. Both were UDFA success stories who made the team and made an immediate impact, but Bartu only lasted a couple of years in Atlanta despite some solid football.
Worrilow was a tremendous story and a solid linebacker who the team leaned on heavily thanks to injuries and shaky talent elsewhere in the corps. Despite piling up over 300 tackles in three seasons and enjoying success against the run and as a pass rusher, Worrilow’s misadventures in coverage would earn him the enmity of much of the Falcons fanbase and would eventually prompt Dan Quinn to invest a second rounder in a gifted coverage wizard in Deion Jones to replace him. Worrilow probably deserved better than being saddled with close to 100% of the defensive snaps on some bad defenses with very little help, but at least he landed on his feet with the Eagles and started eight games there a year ago.
Since then, the Falcons have only had one notable miss at linebacker, with Duke Riley not living up to his potential to this point. Debo has been stellar, De’Vondre Campbell has been good-to-great as a starter, and sixth rounder Foye Oluokun shone in his opportunities last year. The team heads into 2019 with three slam dunk starting caliber players and interesting depth, at the very least.
Why did it take so long to get things right? I think it’s fair to argue that the Falcons had a good thing when they had Curtis Lofton, Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon all on the field at the same time, but contracts and injuries intruded on that picture, with ‘Spoon and Peria Jerry ranking as the two great injury-centric “what ifs” in recent Falcons history. The team was not ready to bleed as much talent as they did heading into 2013 and 2014, a problem they compounded by whiffing on picks (Dent and Shembo) and turning two UDFA gems into players asked to do everything instead of just the things they were good at, owing to the state of the defense at the time. It was, in other words, a very Falconly blend of bad luck and ineptitude, and I’m hopeful we’ve left that era behind.