Atlanta Falcons DC Mike Nolan will be a hot commodity if the team goes deep into the playoffs. The Falcons defense has had an eye-catching turnaround, and Nolan deserves all the credit. Atlanta will face a drafting conundrum if Nolan is busy entertaining head coaching offers after the 2012 season.
Drafting For Nolan
Mike Nolan has made the most of the talent on Atlanta's roster. His creative schemes have begun to define what a "Mike Nolan" player is. DE Kroy Biermann is a perfect example.
Under Brain VanGorder, Biermann was a back up defensive end. Nolan has breathed new life into Biermann by exploiting his speed and versatility. When Biermann lines up at defensive end, the opposing offense can not be sure he is rushing the quarterback. Often Nolan will have Biermann drop into coverage and send a cornerback or safety in his place.
Nolan's need for versatility creates a unique drafting perspective. General Manager Thomas Dimitroff will have to look beyond a player's traditional skill set and instead focus on how he fits Nolan's scheme. This could lead to draft steals by snagging overlooked players that do not fit into generally defined roles, often called "tweeners." Hybrid safety/linebackers or DE/LB would shine in Nolan's system, but might be overwhelmed in a more power-oriented system.
Curtis Lofton's Cautionary Tale
Atlanta let linebacker Curtis Lofton get away during free agency. Lofton was the most solid MLB the Falcons had seen since the retirement of Jessie Tuggle. But Lofton was a poor fit for Nolan's plan. Nolan employs the nickel-package more often than the base 4-3 defense. Lofton is a stout tackler, but does not have the coverage skills for a two-linebacker set.
If Nolan stays long-term, then Lofton's departure will have little impact. If Nolan moves on, the Falcons will have lost a player that could have anchored either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense.
No One Knows Nolan's Heart
Mike Nolan has coaching in his blood. Nolan's father was former San Francisco 49ers (1968-75) head coach Dick Nolan. Mike Nolan attempted to follow in his father's footsteps when he also coached the 49ers (2005-08). Nolan found no success and was fired midway through the 2008. It is anyone's guess if Nolan feels a need to try and redeem himself at that position.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith did work briefly with Nolan in 2002. Both were position coaches for the Baltimore Ravens. Nolan has bounced around since then with stints with the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, and Miami Dolphins. Nolan might be drawn to the stability of the Falcons franchise.
Wherever Nolan's heart leads him, the Atlanta Falcons need that compass in full view. The 2013 draft could be another building block in the franchise's best stretch in their history. Or it could become the stumbling block that leads to the end of consecutive winning seasons.
For now, only Mike Nolan knows the answer.
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