Of the four linebackers who started at least one game last season, three are set to be unrestricted free agents, and only one is a virtual lock to return. So if there's one area where the Atlanta Falcons would like to be active in free agency, it's at linebacker.
Unfortunately, the pickins are rather slim.
11-year veteran and team captain Keith Brooking is the most notable unrestricted free agent the Falcons have, and while Thomas Dimitroff and Brooking's representation have engaged in discussions about him returning for another season, they haven't been able to reach an agreement about what his value is and he will likely hit the open market at 12:01 tomorrow morning.
Brooking is still productive (102 tackles in 2008) and durable (133 consecutive starts, including playoffs), but his production has been steadily declining since his last Pro Bowl season in 2005. Brooking also turns 34 this year, calling into question how much longer he can reasonably expected to perform at a high level.
Meanwhile Michael Boley, a starter in 52 of a possible 64 games since being chosen by the Falcons with the 160th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, appears to be on his way out after being replaced in the starting lineup late last season by Coy Wire. Boley is at his best when playing downhill and looked uncomfortable in the Falcons' new defensive scheme. With the free agent linebacker market as depressed as it is, Boley won't last long on the free agent market.
Wire is a special teams demon, which is why the Falcons are expected to bring him back to fill that role in 2009 and beyond.
It's clear that the future of the Falcons' linebacker corps will be built around middle linebacker Curtis Lofton.
Lofton, the third player chosen by Dimitroff last April, had a solid rookie season, finishing third on the team with 94 tackles, including 7 while pulling double-duty on special teams. Lofton probably won't make too many appearances on special teams in 2009, as the anticipated departures of Boley and Brooking will keep Lofton on the field for all three downs this year. It's also likely that Lofton will have a "C" stitched onto his jersey and will be calling the plays on defense.
Third-year linebacker and special teams contributor Stephen Nicholas could compete for the starting strong-side linebacker spot vacated by Boley, while second-year man Robert James provides depth.
Here are some of free agent outside linebackers presently available:
Bart Scott, Baltimore – Scott has been a durable, productive linebacker for the Ravens, who may be unable to afford Scott, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. Scott will have a few suitors, including the New York Jets, whose head coach is former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay – Released by the Buccaneers in a cost-cutting move, the 14-year veteran has lost a step, is no longer a three-down linebacker and turns 36 in April. However, he's never missed an NFL game and his experience and leadership could help Lofton's development into a Pro Bowl linebacker.
Cato June, Tampa Bay – Also released yesterday by the Bucs, June wasn't nearly as productive for Tampa Bay as he was in his final season with Indianapolis in 2006. At 30, he could be a less expensive alternative at strong-side linebacker.
Angelo Crowell, Buffalo – Missed the entire 2008 season with a knee injury, but was a productive and versatile linebacker before the injury and could be a free agent steal.
Brian McIntyre lives in the Boston area. In addition to writing for FalconInsider.com, Brian maintains his own blog (www.macsfootballblog.com) and charts games for Football Outsiders. If you'd like to e-mail Brian, you may do so here.
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