What Now? - Sean Weatherspoon
The fledgling Falcons defense was dealt a significant blow Tuesday when LB Sean Weatherspoon ruptured his Achilles tendon while rehabbing the knee injury that sidelined him for the last two games of the 2013 season.
Weatherspoon is no stranger to injuries. In addition to the knee injury last season, he spent eight weeks on injured reserve/designation for return with a Lisfranc injury. In total, Weatherspoon has missed 17 games in his four years as a pro.
Atlanta is a team in transition on the defensive side of the ball, as a lot of the offseason talk has rumored the Falcons to be shifting to a 3-4 scheme. The free agent signings of Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai would suggest there’s some truth to this chatter.
The expectation was for Weatherspoon and second-year man Paul Worrilow to man the inside linebacker spots with Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi on the outside. But with Weatherspoon sidelined, who’s the next man up?
At this point, it looks like a two-horse race between Joplo Bartu and No. 139 overall pick Prince Shembo, who was an edge-rushing linebacker at Notre Dame. However, Atlanta defensive coordinator said Shembo was better suited on the inside before the Weatherspoon injury.
Bartu was surprisingly thrust into a starting role following Weatherspoon’s Lisfran injury last season. An undrafted free agent out of Texas State University – San Marcos, Bartu played every down with Weatherspoon out, averaging six tackles per game over that seven-game stretch. He also recorded all of his 3.5 sacks on the season in those seven games.
In general, Bartu was decent enough against the run, though he did struggle a bit in coverage. Still, he’s the early favorite to replace Weatherspoon, and Falcons head coach Mike Smith confirmed as much to NBC’s ProFootballTalk.
Of course, it’s a long time until the beginning of the season, and Atlanta showed last season that they’re not opposed to throwing an unproven player into the fire. Shembo is an intriguing player who has good size and his 10-foot-2 broad jump suggests impressive explosion. He’s no Ryan Shazier in the speed department, but his 4.71 40 time is respectable.
There’s also talk that the Falcons could bring in veteran Jonathan Vilma for a visit along with Pat Angerer and Tim Dobbins. Of the three free agents, Vilma is clear the top option. However, at this point in his career, the 32-year-old Vilma has very little tread left on his tires. It would be really surprising if Vilma is signed.
The Falcons also drafted Marquis Spruill in the fifth-round and Yawin Smallwood in the seventh-round. Both are in the mix to replace Weatherspoon, but they’re long shots at best. Nolan complimented Spruill’s speed, but added that he needed to gain weight. Likewise, Nolan praised Smallwood’s instincts, but clearly views him as a development player.
At this point, the situation in Atlanta is a complete mess. Those looking to Worrilow as the main beneficiary are mistaken. His situation remains unchanged, and it doesn’t look like there’s a clear-cut IDP replacement to target in the wake of Weatherspoon’s injury. Bartu is really just another guy, and Shembo doesn’t project to have the skillset of a three-down ‘backer. I also wouldn’t rule out the potential of seeing a platoon between two players rotating the base and subpackage snaps.
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Jeff Ratcliffe is the Assistant Managing Editor and resident IDP maven of PFF Fantasy.