With the Atlanta Falcons’ training camp set to get underway in just less than a month, it’s time to start looking at some of the more competitive position battles that will take place leading up to the season opener against the hated rival New Orleans Saints.
Inside linebacker was a position with little doubt as to whom the opening day starters would be, but the picture became a lot cloudier when ruminating on how the team’s depth chart would stack up. Sean Weatherspoon was supposed to reclaim his throne as the Falcons’ top linebacker after an injury-plagued 2013. Then, this happened. A devastating achilles tear ended ‘Spoon’s season before it even truly began. Follow that up with the somewhat surprising trade of Akeem Dent, and the picture became a whole lot clearer. Luckily for the Falcons, inside linebacker just so happens to be one of the deepest positions on the entire roster. Although Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, Prince Shembo, Marquis Spruill, and Yawin Smallwood combine for a grand total of only two years of NFL experience, the group does provide a vast array of talents and abilities that make replacing Weatherspoon an attainable feat.
The Falcons employ a 3-4 base defense featuring two inside linebackers, and those two spots are as wide open as ever for the taking. May the best men win. After impressive rookie seasons, incumbent starters Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu hold an edge when it comes to projecting the starters for the 2014 campaign, while rookie fourth-round pick Prince Shembo is coming on strong according to head coach Mike Smith. While it’s unreasonable to expect Spruill or Smallwood to immediately claim a starting spot, anything is possible. The team brought in Tim Dobbins to compete, though he’s not expected to contribute anything more than special teams value, and he may not even make the final 53-man roster.
Let’s take a look at the favorites to break camp as the week one starters at inside linebacker.
Easily the group’s favorite to step in as top dog of the linebacker crew, Paul Worrilow looks to continue his ascension from former undrafted free agent star to legitimate NFL playmaker. After bursting onto the scene in 2013 with a team-leading 127 tackles, Worrilow bulked up during the offseason in an effort to get stronger and to more easily defeat blockers.
“Physically, I feel a lot further ahead than I was last year,” he said. “All that training for the Pro Day kind of takes away from where you want to be physically. I’m big into Olympic lifting; it’s a passion of mine. That kind of is the center of my offseason training.”
A true student of the game, Worrilow can play any linebacker position in the team’s hybrid defense, and his leadership abilities look to help him grow into a vastly bigger role as the offseason progresses. The door is wide open for Worrilow to solidify his spot as a long-term starter for the Falcons.