One of the missing men from the Falcons' offseason programs was linebacker Stephen Nicholas. He was present every day at the facility, but he did not practice with his teammates during the offseason as he continued to rehab an injury from the 2011 season.
Nicholas was only able to participate in 10 games last season, the first time since 2007 that he did not play in all 16 games in a regular season. He finished the year with 35 tackles, not an overwhelming number, but ProFootballFocus.com just released their tackling efficiency stats for linebackers for the past three seasons and Nicholas is among the league leaders.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith said during the offseason that he expected Nicholas to return to practice when training camp begins in late July and he will pair with Sean Weatherspoon to create a formidable duo at outside linebacker for Atlanta. Weatherspoon plays the glamour position of weakside linebacker, a position that allows him to be all over the field. Nicholas mans the strongside and does the dirty work cleaning up what's left behind.
According to PFF, Nicholas has 1,636 snaps during the last three years with 132 tackles. His nine missed tackles gives him a ratio of 18 percent, meaning he missed a tackle for every 18 tackles he made.
Nicholas' production puts him in the same company with notable linebackers like Patrick Willis, Jerod Mayo and Paul Posluszny.
A return to health will put Nicholas back in the starting lineup next season and he could be a benefactor of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's aggressive and varied scheme. Nolan has said he prefers having numerous players with sacks and Nicholas is an aggressive player that hasn't always had the opportunity to rush the quarterback.
Additionally, the efficient Nicholas could get more opportunities to put his sure-tackling to good use. While in college at South Florida, he set the school record for tackles for loss and his 320 career tackles ranks second in school history.
The underrated Nicholas could take a step forward into more prominent recognition during the 2012 season and his pairing with Weatherspoon give the Falcons two highly talented outside linebackers that rival anything the rest of the NFC South has to offer.