With the defensive front four out of the way, we now turn our attention to the linebackers. This position is normally supposed to be the strength of a team, with athletic wonders stuffing opposing running backs at the line, blanketing tight ends as they search in vain for an open spot in the middle of the field and tracking down quarterbacks for major losses and huge momentum swings. Let’s look at what we have, shall we…….
-O’Brien Schofield, Paul Worrilow, Justin Durant, Brooks Reed, Nate Stupar, Philip Wheeler, Tyler Starr
O’Brien Schofield-contract expired, unrestricted free agent
O’Brien was brought in to be a bit player (20-25 snaps a game) and to help teach his new team their new scheme, having played in it for 2 seasons. Schofield played both OLB and rush DE in Seattle, so his knowledge of the defense permeated both the LB core and DL core. However, due to circumstances beyond his control, Schofield was routinely asked to play in the 35-40 snap count area, something to which his aged/surgically repaired knees were not meant to do. Like a lot of his teammates, O’Brien played better in the 1st half of the season then he did in the latter half. I’m assuming the wear and tear got to him with those knees. Schofield performs much better with a much lower pitch count.
Paul Worrilow-contract expired, restricted free agent
What does it say when your team’s leading tackler 3 years in a row was and UDFA? Yes, Jessie Tuggle was such a player for the Falcons, but Worrilow is not Jessie Tuggle. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Worrilow. Total effort guy, takes no time off in the off-season trying to perfect his craft or work on his body, has a nose for the ball and is always around the action. However, his constant failures to wrap up cause multiple missed tackles during the season, usually in the open field for all to see. And, at least it seems, whenever he has a chance to make a big play on an opposing RB for a major loss, he whiffs on that tackle as well. Most say he is subpar in pass coverage. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, I think he’s just required to cover longer than he’s capable of due to a poor pass rush. That’s not to say Worrilow is an excellent pass defender, but I do think he’s serviceable.
Justin Durant-signed through the 2017 season, $3,182,291 cap charge
Cut pre 6/1-$833,334 dead money, $2,348,957 cap savings
Cut post 6/1-$414,666 dead money, $2,765,625 cap savings
Trade-same as pre 6/1
In 2015, Justin was everything you thought he would be. Sure tackler, very active, good in space, good coverage linebacker, smart and injury prone. Durant missed games at different parts of the season for different ailments and still wound up as the team’s #2 tackler. There’s not a lot left to say about him. Durant is everything you could want out of a LB minus the injuries. It makes you wonder what kind of numbers he could put up and what type of an effect he would have on a defense if he could stay healthy for the entire year.
Brooks Reed-under contract through 2019 season, $3,440,000 cap charge
Cut pre 6/1-$3,760,000 dead money, $320,000 cap charge NOT savings
Cut post 6/1-$940,000 dead money, $2,500,000 cap savings
Trade-same as pre 6/1
Reed was the one big free agent signing we made prior to the 2015 season. Perfect size for a linebacker at 6’4”, 250+lbs and can run. Reed was coming off of an injury, re-injured himself in camp, came back too soon, re-injured himself again, then didn’t make his debut til the 4th game, and I’m not sure he was ever 100% healthy. Stat lines for 2015 are not too impressive: 13 games, 17 tackles, 3 stuffs for -5yards. That’s it. Which isn’t a ton different from his career numbers. 73 career games, 186 career tackles(not even 3/game), 14.5 sacks ,1 forced fumble with 2 fumble recoveries, 1 INT, 16 tackles for loss, 10 passes defensed. And most of those numbers were on defenses that had JJ Watt and Mario Williams, who were getting most of the attention. We’re paying a lot of money for a lot of mediocrity. I guess there’s something to be said for setting the edge, taking on blockers, but at some point you’ve got to fill up the stat sheet don’t you? Hopefully, Brooks comes back healthy in 2016 and given another year in the new system can contribute some numbers, but history is not on his side here.
Nate Stupar-contract expired, restricted free agent
Nate was brought in by the previous regime because of his prowess on special teams. In 2015, due to some injuries and inconsistent play, Nate got to be on the field for a lot of meaningful snaps and didn’t disappoint. Really good in pass coverage, sure tackler who doesn’t over commit can set the edge and even got into the backfield for a sack this past season. If Nate doesn’t watch out, his days as a special teams ace could be numbered.
Philip Wheeler-contract expired, unrestricted free agent
Signed before the week #8 game against Tampa Bay, inserted into the starting lineup week #9 against the Niner’s, Philip did all you could ask from someone in that situation. It really isn’t that far of a stretch to say Wheeler was our best LB in the 2nd half of the season. A veteran of now 4 teams, Philip has had some really good seasons and not so good seasons. At 31 years of age, I don’t believe Philip is in the Falcons long term plans, but it’s nice to know he’s just a phone call away.
Tyler Starr-signed through the 2016 season, $600,000 cap charge
Cut pre 6/1-$0 dead money, $600,000 cap savings
Cut post 6/1-same
What can you say about Tyler? Nothing! Why, because in 2 seasons with the Falcons, we’ve seen more of his hot wife Megan than we have of Tyler. On the team but never dressed out in 2014. On the practice squad until late in the season in 2015. His career stat line: 1 game played, 1 special teams tackle. I’m sorry, but I’m gonna need more to go on than this. At 6’5”, 250lbs Starr looks every bit the part of menacing NFL linebacker down to his flowing, golden locks. Starr dominated the lower football ranks at South Dakota, but that hasn’t translated to anything at the pro level. Whether he’s just not getting the chance or he hasn’t proved he deserves a chance, this is probably the end of the line for Tyler. We’ll miss you Megan!
Analysis: More production is needed from this group. A lot more. With only 3 linebackers currently under contract, there could be a lot of turnover here or we could see some of the old familiar faces return. Probably a mixture of both. With an improved pass rush, the 2015 Falcons linebackers would have probably had better numbers, especially in pass defense. But there aren’t many LB’s in the professional ranks that can keep up with TE’s and RB’s all the way across the field and some 20 yards deep while also trying to keep their eyes on what’s happening in the backfield. If nothing else, the tackling here needs to get shored up.
My Conclusion: I didn’t separate the ILB’s from the OLB’s for a couple of reasons, (1)quite a few of our guys played both, though they are generally suited for 1 or the other, and (2) I don’t believe we have a true ILB in the group. That being said, here goes my breakdown…Brooks Reed stays (sigh). I’ve already eaten a couple of huge contracts with Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, I’m not about to swallow another one. Plus I hope if he comes back healthy, he can at least produce at the pedestrian level he did in Houston. Maybe he just gets flat beat out and we can cut him post June 1st where we don’t get hit with as much dead money. But for right now, he’s on the team. Nate Stupar is an unrestricted free agent that I want back. With the season he put together, he might be on a couple of other teams’ radar as well. If I tender him at level 3, that’s 1 year at $1.3+ million. If someone else wants him and we don’t match their offer, we only get back a draft pick equal to where Nate was drafted. Nate was drafted in the 7th round. I think someone would go after him and to keep him we would need to match their offer, I’m not giving Nate up for a 7th round pick. So, I’ll tender him a level 2, he’ll get 1 year at $2.0+ million and no one is going to give up a 2nd round draft choice for Nate, so he stays.
Justin Durant is without question the toughest call here. He’s obviously the best LB we currently have, but for whatever reason he just can’t stay healthy for an entire season. Just once in 9 seasons (2012 with Detroit) has Justin played in all 16 games. He comes to camp, but if I can find a healthy player that is comparable to Justin’s skill set, I let Justin go. Paul Worrilow is kinda in the same boat as Stupar. Generously listed as our starting MLB, I believe Worrilow is much more suited to being an outside backer. His 2 best statistical games came there 3 years ago when he was thrust into the starting lineup due to injuries(back to back 19 tackle games). Like Stupar, Worrilow is a restricted free agent. Not going to tender him level 3 since he was an UDFA, so we wouldn’t get anything in return if we decided to let him walk. I’ll tender him a level 2, same as Stupar. I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone gives up a 2nd rounder for him. I really like Schofield, but those knees of his really limits what he can do, especially if pressed into extra playing time. O’Brien was brought in to mainly help out understanding the new system, I hope that’s not needed in year #2. I let him walk. Philip Wheeler was great when we needed him, but we need to get younger and more athletic here as well, so he’s not invited back. Tyler Starr comes to camp, but he’s got about as much chance of making the club as I do. This isn’t an area we need to go free agent shopping in, this is an area where we need to draft for now and the future.
I like a lot of linebackers in this year’s class. Of course there’s Jaylon Smith of the recently torn ACL. I’m not as gung-ho about him as SW is, mainly because of the knee and you never know exactly how someone will bounce back from it, though the medical field has come a long, long way with regards to knees. We need a true MLB. Someone that is going to attack opposing RB’s and wrap them up securely once they’ve gotten hold of them. You all know my love affair with Tyler Matakevich from Temple. A couple of others I really like who would be more outside than inside are Jordan Jenkins from UGA, Kyler Fackrell from Utah State and Deion Jones from LSU, who’s a bit undersized at 6’1”, 228 lbs but can wrap up, cover and runs like the wind for a LB. And lastly, let’s not forget, on my team, Vic Beasley is moving to OLB, at least in base situations.
Conclusion: Reed, Durant, Starr, Schofield, Worrilow and Stupar all come back. Another under the radar UFA is signed and this position is addressed in the draft as well. Quinn has stated that the trenches are where the main concentration will be. He may think, like I do, that our group of LB’s will be better with a better unit in front of them.