With the loss of Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, the Atlanta Falcons will be looking to fill some key roles in their linebacker corps in 2009.
Some draft experts foresee the Falcons picking a linebacker at No. 24, but I feel the Falcons need only look under their own nose for some burgeoning, yet untapped, talent.
First up, already starting linebacker, Curtis Lofton (pictured above). This first year rookie sensation out of Oklahoma was a big time player for the birds last year; racking up 94 tackles and a sack. The Falcons are looking to make him the cornerstone of a new nucleus.
Lofton will be a three-down player this season, last year he was relegated to the first two downs of a series, but was often pulled on third downs or downs where a pass was expected.
Lofton is not the ideal size for a linebacker but he has great strength and is pretty good in zone coverage. However, he is not a pass rusher and would likely get beat more often than not if there is a speedy receiver on the field.
That said, Head Coach Mike Smith feels good about Lofton being the new leader and will give him more of an opportunity to show what he can do as an every-down player.
However, once you get beyond Lofton, the picture is less clear.
Stephen Nicholas is expected to compete for a starting job this offseason. The fourth round pick of the 2007 draft has appeared in 29 games for the Falcons but has mainly been a backup. This season he has a chance to break through the wall and become a full-time starter.
Nicholas, like Lofton, lacks the size you would like to see in an NFL Linebacker but is very instinctive when he's on the field. He's got a good feel for the game and has all the makings of being a playmaker down the road.
I like his toughness and his ability to always be around the ball. In the few games he did appear in last year, he showed glimpses of what he could accomplish if given a chance to play.
Another guy to be on the watch for is Coy Wire.
Wire took over the starting job from the now departed Michael Boley in week fifteen. Wire hasn't had a significant role as a starter since his first year in the league with Buffalo. In his rookie season there in 2002, he tallied 96 tackles and three sacks.
His best days could be near but, on the other hand, limited starts means he may still have a good bit of fuel left in the tank. In just four starts for the Falcons last year, he had 34 tackles so I expect him to be in the hunt right along with Nicholas for a starting spot.
The Falcons will still likely draft a linebacker for depth and future consideration, as Mike Peterson is not likely to be the long-term solution.
In the meantime, the reserve action is likely to go to Tony Gilbert and Robert James. Neither was a factor last season as James was injured and Gilbert was inactive. However, with massive departures, the opportunity is there for both to make an impact.
There's no telling what will happen with the linebackers this season, but Curtis Lofton and Mike Peterson are the beginnings of a new era for the Falcons and it should be interesting to see who the third guy will be when the dust clears.