As much as it was a emotional blow for me, I can’t imagine the toll the news of Sean Weatherspoon’s season season ending injury took on his teammates. Spoon has been one of my favorite Falcons since he was drafted, but he has been the the vocal and emotional leader of the defense for the last few years. Losing his presence on the field and in the locker room is a massive blow to a defense that in in transition and to a position group that is seriously lacking verteran leadership. That’s not even mentioning Weatherspoon’s personal losses, since he was in a contract year he potentially lost out on 10s of millions of dollars because of the horribly timed injury.
It’s long been said that NFL stands for “Not For Long”, because the National Football League is going to move on quickly. The Falcons will have to be just as decisive in determining Spoon’s replacement, let’s look at the most logical solutions.
The Falcons picked up 4 linebackers in last months draft, 3 of which are inside players who could step up in Weatherspoon’s absence. While there is a legitimate possibility either Prince Shembo or Yawin Smallwood could step up, that is expecting too much from a late-round rookie to play such a linchpin role in a transitioning defense. Look at the ILBs brought in and there is a lot of promise, but not a lot of polish. It will take a year or two before we see starters out of the group of Shembo, Smallwood, and Spruill.
The offseason story for Paul Worrilow has been increased muscle mass and an increased leadership presence. Worrilow would make sense as Spoon’s replacement, because they have similar skill sets and contribute as vocal leaders. But I was anticipating Worrilow to beat out Akeem Dent to play SILB, with Spoon playing WILB. Now that Worrilow is virtually a lock to be a starter, the other player that needs to step up is…
As heralded as Worrilow’s added mass was this offseason, Bartu could have him edged in that category. If Bartu has added the size needed to play inside and kept his mobility then that would be great news for the Falcons defense. Bartu has the all-around skill that it takes to be a 3-4 WILB. He can cover, run downhill and sideline-to-sideline, blitz from the inside, and is a physical tackler. Also the amount of time that Bartu saw the field last year might really pay off now that he will presumably asked to take a starting role. Seeing him add the weight necessary to take on lineman as a 3-4 ILB is just the icing on the cake.
Free Agent Market:
Quick, who’s the best available free agent linebacker? That’s a pretty difficult question to answer in the middle of June. Since the remaining FAs are mostly a scrap pile of greats past their prime likes Brian Urlacher, or bad scheme fits like Jonathan Vilma, going the free agent route might not be the most advisable. The name I would throw out is Dan Connor, simply because he is the guy being propped up by the super-connected-to-Flowery-Branch Vaughn McClure. Connor might not be the most natural scheme fit but has a few seasons as a starter under his belt and might be the guy with the inside track to take some snap in place of Weatherspoon.
Obviously, none of these options are as good as a healthy Spoon. But that isn’t to say there is no hope. I think the ideal scenario has Worrilow and Bartu stepping up and not only manning the inside backer positions but also fill the leadership void that Weatherspoon left.