Thomas Howard will have role for Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Newly signed Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Thomas Howard is expected to have a role, but defensive coordinator Mike Nolan isn’t sure what that role will be just yet.

"I’m kind of anxious to see him," Nolan said of Howard. "I don’t have much to say other than I’m glad he’s here. And hopefully we’re really glad after [Wednesday]. So, we’ll see."

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound, Howard, a2006 second-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders, has 78 starts under his belt from his stints in Oakland and Cincinnati. The Falcons, however, didn’t sign him with the anticipation of thrusting him into the starting lineup. In fact, Howard suffered a season-ending ACL tear after one game with the Bengals last season, so how he’ll perform coming off such a devastating injury remains unknown.

"He’s a guy that can play both SAM and WILL and will give us a lot of flexibility in terms of putting together our game-day roster," head coach Mike Smith said.

The Falcons sorely need depth at linebacker due to injury. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent appeared to reinjure his ankle during last Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay, while reserve outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas injured his thigh playing special teams. Not to mention starter Sean Weatherspoon won’t return until at least Week 11 after being placed on short-term injured reserve following a Week 1 foot injury. And even rookie Paul Worrilow, now in the starting lineup, has dealt with a knee issue.

Smith said Howard has familiarity with some of the Falcons’ defensive terminology based on his time with the Bengals, since that defense connects back to Smith’s days under current Bengals coach Marvin Lewis when Lewis was the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator.

But Howard’s immediate role is expected to be as a special-teams contributor. The University of Texas-El Paso product was known as a sure tackler with speed.

"He’s an athletic, big, strong guy, that can contribute on special teams as well," Smith said. "Coming out [of UTEP], he was a 4.42 -- that was his verified time when he came out in 2006."

Special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong was asked what role Howard could play on his units.

"It could be punt, it could be kickoff, punt return, kick return," Armstrong said with a laugh. "He could be a big-four contributor."

The Falcons released veteran linebacker Jamar Chaney to make room for Howard.