Last season, most would probably call linebacker a position of strength for the Falcons. The team ranked 10th in rushing defense, and allowed only nine touchdowns on the ground all of last season. In fact, the Falcons D as a whole was great in the red zone, ranking as the fifth-best scoring defense in the league.
As we head into 2011, Atlanta's linebackers are almost at the end of a gradual transition. When Mike Smith and company took over, the linebacking corps was headlined by longtime Falcon Keith Brooking, along with guys from the previous regime like Michael Boley and Demorrio Williams. Now, we find the next generation ready to take over the defense, hopefully for the long term.
Projected Depth Chart:
1. Sean Weatherspoon
2. Spencer Adkins
3. Robert James
1. Curtis Lofton
2. Coy Wire
3. Bear Woods
1. Mike Peterson
2. Akeem Dent
The one guy the Falcons are likely to lose once free agency hits is fourth year OLB Stephen Nicholas, who will be unrestricted under the new deal. Nicholas, who started 11 games last season and served as a key contributor on the defense, has drawn the interest of several teams this offseason, including the Lions and Jaguars. Too expensive to keep as a backup, he'll likely end up as a starter for another team.
In addition, the wily vet Mike Peterson is also slated to become a free agent. With it unlikely that the Falcons are ready to have Akeem Dent become the full time starter right away, I expect the Falcons to re-sign Mo Pete for one more year, if only to keep him as a mentor for the young guys at linebacker.
In the third round of this year's draft, the Falcons traded up to get my boy, the University of Georgia's very own Akeem Dent. Personally, I love this pick. Although Dent started on the inside in the Dawgs' new 3-4 defense, he was primarily a strong side LB for his first three seasons under the ever-popular, ever-talented Willie Martinez. From that, we can reasonably assume he'll end up Mike Peterson's primary backup and eventual replacement.
The defense will once again be led by the chronically underrated Curtis Lofton, who led the team in tackles with 118. Outside of being a tackle machine, Lofton was also just a great playmaker. In 2010, he recorded three forced fumbles, 2.0 sacks, an INT, and three tackles for loss. Simply put, this is a guy the Falcons can count on week in and week out to be a consistent playmaker.
On the oustide, we have Weatherspoon and Peterson. Weatherspoon, who was hampered by an ankle injury for a good chunk of last year, will have a chance to rebound from a relatively disappointing rookie season. As he slowly becomes more acclimated to the NFL, I think we'll see him improve in some big ways in 2011.
Opposite of Weatherspoon, we have the ageless wonder Peterson, who despite becoming somewhat of a liability in the passing game was his typical bruising self against the run. Whether he still has enough gas left in the tank to be a viable starter for a full season remains to be seen, but should Peterson falter Dent will always be waiting in the wings to take over.
As far as backups are concerned, the Falcons are happy to have special teams captain Coy Wire returning for another season with the team. Miami product Spencer Adkins and ASU product Robert James also look to be special teams contributors. Finally, we have the absolutely terrifying Bear Woods, who spent the year on the practice squad and was resigned pre-lockout. Naturally he's raw, but has alot of promise (and hair).
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