Falcons need to fill void at LB with Justin Durant released

In just one year with the Atlanta Falcons, weakside linebacker Justin Durant made a strong impression.

When healthy, Durant showed the ability to make plays all over the field. He was a leader in the locker room, as evident from him being one of the guys to address the team during a players' only meeting.

Middle linebacker Paul Worrilow certainly appreciated Durant's presence.

"No doubt I am a better player having played beside him for a season," Worrilow said. "He's the ultimate warrior in the sense of battling week in and out for his teammates. JD's competitiveness was evident Day 1. And above all that, JD is a tremendous person off the field."

A variety of nagging injuries were the reason the Falcons were willing to cut ties with Durant, their second-leading tackler from last season (82 tackles in 13 games). Now, the Falcons are even thinner at linebacker, a position where they need impactful starters as well as quality depth.

Worrilow is a restricted free agent the Falcons want in the fold, while strong-side linebacker Brooks Reed has to step it up after the Falcons signed him to five-year, $22.5 million contract ($9 million guaranteed) last offseason.

What about replacing Durant at weakside linebacker? Well, the Falcons could go a number of ways. Veteran Philip Wheeler, who signed a one-year deal last season, filled in for Durant last season and should be a priority to re-sign. If Wheeler ends up in a reserve role, he has to be willing to embrace special teams.

Draft prospect Myles Jack from UCLA, who played under Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich when Ulbrich was the Bruins' defensive coordinator, would be the ideal fit for the scheme. However, Jack could be a Top 10 pick, and the Falcons own the 17th overall selection.

The Falcons no doubt want to get younger and faster at linebacker, so expect one to be drafted. Finding a linebacker or two in free agency wouldn't be a surprise, either.

Here could be some free-agent options:

Danny Trevathan (6-1, 240), Denver Broncos: John Elway said re-signing Trevathan is a priority, but we'll see what happens. Trevathan, who turns 26 next month, played under Falcons defensive coordinator Richard Smith when Smith coached the Broncos linebackers. Trevathan, who started 15 games this past season, led the Broncos with 109 tackles and had six passes defensed.

Derrick Johnson (6-3, 242), Kansas City Chiefs: If the Falcons want a proven veteran who could step in for a must-win season, they might have to consider the 33-year-old Johnson. Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli and new pro personnel director Joel Collier are familiar with Johnson from their days with the Chiefs. The four-time Pro Bowler Johnson led the Chiefs with 116 tackles and also had four sacks and two interceptions.

Tahir Whitehead (6-2, 242), Detroit Lions: Whitehead, who turns 26 in April, is a versatile player who is most comfortable at middle linebacker. However, he's played outside linebacker before and is willing to play the weak-side linebacker spot as well. Whitehead started eight games this past season and started 15 games at middle linebacker in 2014 in place of the injured Stephen Tulloch, finishing with 86 tackles and two interceptions that year.

Chad Greenway, (6-3, 237), Minnesota Vikings: Again, this would be more about if the Falcons want to bring in a proven veteran rather than wait for a younger talent to get his footing. The 33-year-old Greenway has posted a 100-plus tackles in six of his 10 NFL seasons. Last season, Greenway transitioned to a two-down player, coming out in passing situations. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wants Greenway back, though.