Falcons Set Visit With Elite Linebacker

More and more, it seems that it won't just be different players in Atlanta's linebacker corps -- different (and sometimes interchangeable) roles might be the order of the day. In this exclusive, Falcon Insider has the skinny on one such linebacker who's getting ready to meet with the team.

Scout.com's Ed Thompson reports that the Falcons will welcome USC ILB Rey Maualuga for a private meeting on April 4. Maualuga is regarded as the best inside linebacker in this year's draft, and the possibility that he could be wearing a Falcons uniform brings many interesting scenarios to light.

First of all, most mock drafts have Maualuga going in the mid-first round, ahead of Atlanta's 24th overall pick. Perhaps the team might look to trade up if they find Maualuga's attributes to be can't-miss for a team in desperate need of young linebacker talent?

The visit also confirms that the team isn't necessarily happy with stopgap moves to refuel a linebacker corps decimated with the losses of Keith Brooking and Michael Boley in free agency. The Falcons signed former Jaguar Mike Peterson, who head coach Mike Smith is very familiar with, but judging from what Smith said at the Owner's Meetings, he was doing more than blowing smoke when he talked about what USC's likebackers -- Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Clay Matthews -- bring to the game.

"They are very impressive -- (they) are definitely going to have an opportunity to play in the NFL. It's been well documented that there are going to be some guys that get drafted very early. I think there is one common theme that these guys have and that's they enjoy playing the game of football. That's very obvious when you watch those guys on tape. They play with a lot of intensity. They play with a lot of passion. They have different sizes. They run differently, but the one thing that they do is that they play, very, very hard."

Of course, the question then comes up -- if Maualuga were to come in as a natural middle linebacker in a 4-3, where would second-year man Curtis Lofton play? Smith sees several -- perhaps interchangeable -- possibilities.

"We felt very good about what Curtis Lofton was able to do as a rookie for us and start in our base package," Smith said. "Curtis is going to get an opportunity to be a three-down player this season. Mike Peterson comes in with the ability to play all three positions, which as you know we believe in cross training our players. Stephen Nicholas, this will be his third season, second year in our scheme (as the SAM linebacker). Stephen will be competing for a position. We were able to re-sign Coy Wire.'

"Mike (Peterson) started his career at Indianapolis as a WILL linebacker.
When he was signed in Jacksonville he moved to MIKE linebacker. Really, the WILL and the SAM linebackers are interchangeable in our scheme. They really are."

Maualuga measures in at 6-2 and 249 pounds. Though he is primarily regarded as a vicious hitter against the run and a pass rusher up the middle, his ability to drop into coverage in certain situations makes him a potential three-down player. It appears that the Falcons, with coach Smith as their guide, are looking for players who can flip positions, making the defense less about roles and more about specific matchups. Having Maualuga in the picture would go a long way toward making that happen.


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