Just like the receiving corps on offense, the Falcons linebacking unit features an impressive mix of youth and veterans, toughness and speed, intelligence and athleticism.
It also features some serious competition.
Last year's starters Curtis Lofton, Mike Peterson, and Stephen Nicholas return for another season, but first-round rookie Sean Weatherspoon is coming onto the scene in hopes of working his way into their rotation.
Valued veteran Coy Wire hopes his influence in the locker room and on special teams will mean another season as one of the critical role players for the Falcons.
Youngsters Spencer Adkins, Robert James, Bear Woods, and Weston Johnson each bring a different skill set to the table and will give the Atlanta coaching staff a lot to consider once roster-cutting time arrives.
Curtis Lofton 3rd season
Who:The 2008 second-round draft pick has become one of the emotional leaders of the Falcons defense. Last season he turned in a team and career-high total in tackles with 160. He also chipped in two passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
Why:Quickly becoming team captain material, Lofton's play and attitude is infectious. He's a stout run denfender at middle linebacker. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the 6', 248-pound linebacker was the third-best linebacker in the NFL in run defense last season.
How:He'll continue to do what he's done and he'll be the starting middle linebacker for the third straight season when 2010 begins. The coaching staff would like to see him continue to improve his pass defense and Lofton has admitted he hopes to produce more big plays, including sacking the quarterback.
Mike Peterson 12th season
Who:The 34-year-old Peterson was added to the Falcons roster last season to bring much needed experience and leadership to a young linebacking corp. In his first year with the franchise he finished second on the team in tackles with 109 and added one sack, one interception, and two forced fumbles. In addition to his play on the field, the 6'1", 238-pound linebacker was the emotional glue for Atlanta's defense.
Why:At 34 he may be in the final years of a long career, but he still has a few things left to contribute. A savvy veteran who showed a knack for being in the right place at the right time early last season, Peterson saw the second-most snaps on defense in 2009. He served as a mentor to middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and know can do the same for first-round rookie Sean Weatherspoon.
How:He'll need to show first that he's willing to help bring Weatherspoon along, something he's been vocal about doing thus far. Peterson's pass coverage at the weakside was at times very good last year and he'll need to prove that he's still capable of defending when the ball is in the air.
Stephen Nicholas 4th season
Who:A 27-year-old fourth-round selection by Atlanta in 2007, Nicholas showed flashes last season that he's coming into his own in his first season as a full-time starter. He ended 2009 with 80 tackles, three sacks, and one forced fumble. At 6'3", 230 pounds, Nicholas is a presence on the strong side.
Why:Nicholas showed an ability last season to rush the passer. In addition to his sack total, he compiled two QB hits and five QB pressures. As a first-year starter, he showed potential and have the coaching staff believing he can continue to make strides in his fourth season.
How:Nicholas will need to avoid taking a step backwards during training camp and show that he has used the offseason wisely to improve his pass coverage. If he can convince the coaches that he can stay on the field on passing downs, there's no reason to believe he won't be a starter in 2010.
Coy Wire 9th season
Who:While he only had 17 tackles in 2009, the 31-year-old linebacker was invaluable to the Falcons. In his 95 snaps last season he played strong against the run and wasn't a liability against the pass. Wire's biggest contributions came on special teams where he was a captain and produced nine tackles.
Why:Entering his third season with the Falcons, Wire has impressed the coaching staff as a super sub and a major player on special teams. A strong locker room presence and a leader on the field and the sidelines, Wire contributes as much off the field as on.
How:He'll need to continue to be a factor on special teams and mentor many of the younger players being added to the unit. His experience and expertise in that discipline are things the coaching staff can't ignore. The competition at linebacker is high, but the experience is low, so Wire could find himself in the middle ground and with a spot on the team.
Spencer Adkins 2nd season
Who:An intriguing player on the Falcons roster, Adkins spent much of his rookie season watching from the sidelines. Down the stretch he was added to the active roster, four of his five games played came in the final four games of the season. While he didn't produce any defensive statistics, he contributed three special teams tackles. Added as a sixth-round selection out of Miami in 2009, Adkins turned some heads when he ran a 4.43 40 at the Hurricanes Pro Day.
Why:Adkins has the speed to be a difference maker on special teams this season. He also has potential as a pass-rushing linebacker on defense in a powerful 5'11", 246-pound frame.
How:First, he'll need to show he's a factor that can't be ignored on special teams. Second, he'll need to show he picked up a few things in the film room and on the sideline last season. His speed is tough to ignore, but the coaches will want to see that mixed with a quality football IQ.
Robert James 3rd season
Who:A fifth-round draft pick in 2008, James lost his rookie season after he was placed on IR before the season began. A member of the practice squad for much of last season, he was active for the final game of the season. As a senior at Arizona State in 2007, he earned All-American honors.
Why:James hasn't had much of a chance to show the potential he displayed in college in his young career. He earned the nickname "The Beast" as an amateur for his self-sacrificing play and a penchant for being all over the field. The coaches would like to see play like that out of James in training camp and the preseason.
How:If James can translate the reckless style to special teams it will help his cause. A four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing substances policy may damage his case, but strong play in training camp could help him revive his career.
Weston Johnson Rookie
Who:A two-year starter at Wyoming, Johnson totaled 106 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three interceptions, three passes defensed, one fumble recovery, and one forced fumble as a senior. An intelligent linebacker, he was also named as an Academic All-Mountain West Conference honoree.
Why:Johnson makes up for not being the most athletically-gifted player on the field by playing with smarts and trying to be technically sound. An awareness like the one he showed at Wyoming will be helpful on special teams.
How:He'll need to impress on special teams and play with an enthusiasm on the practice field that makes him show up on film. He can't let the competition make him disappear.
Bear Woods Rookie
Who:An undrafted free agent signed by the Falcons during the offseason, Woods earned First-Team All-Sun Belt Conference honors as a senior at Troy. The 6', 245-pound linebacker led the team with 143 tackles and added 18 tackles for loss and three sacks.
Why:Woods is talented and displays a passion for football. Those two things alone could translate to being a surprising performer on special teams for Atlanta next season. He reminds some of a young Coy Wire in his approach to the game and the enthusiasm with which he plays.
How:He'll need to stand out on special teams first and foremost. His ability to be a backup at middle linebacker will be a major factor in making the team this season.