Atlanta Falcons linebacker and emotional leader Sean Weatherspoon is out for the season. Because of that, Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu are going to be under added pressure to improve from their already solid 2013 rookie seasons.
In a press release by Jay Adams on the Atlanta Falcons' official website, Falcons head coach Mike Smith released a statement about the injury that Weatherspoon suffered:
During Sean’s run today with our medical staff, he suffered an injury. We sent Sean to the doctor for some additional testing and evaluation and unfortunately the results showed that he ruptured his Achilles tendon. Sean had been working extremely hard to get back on the field, but regrettably he will miss the entire 2014 season. He will have a procedure done in the near future and we expect him to make a full recovery.
It’s tough to get a read on just what happened when Weatherspoon ruptured his Achilles. However, Dr. Dave Siebert did a great job of explaining just how the recovery process is going to work for the talented Falcon. It's going to sideline him at least this entire season.
Nonetheless, the Falcons need to get contributions from Bartu and Worrilow to replace the leadership on and off the field that they will miss from Weatherspoon. Bartu needs to show that he can take on the same weak-inside-linebacker role that Weatherspoon had last season.
But the leadership that will be missing off the field will be tougher to replace, and that is where Worrilow will come in. The former Delaware captain will have to show that he’s the right man to lead the Falcons defense now and in the future.
On the field, Joplo Bartu needs to step up from his rookie season
Joplo Bartu was very good during his rookie season where he had 85 tackles and 3.5 sacks, and eight of those were tackles for a loss. And despite the narrative that the Falcons don't have any good linebackers in coverage outside of Sean Weatherspoon, Bartu showed competence there last season.
My guess is new LBs will get a look, but Bartu would be my front-runner to slide into Spoon's spot. Has really looked good in OTAs.— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) June 11, 2014
In 2014, he's going to have to take the next step in coverage and as a run defender. His role as the weak-inside linebacker will magnify the coverage abilities that he showed last year. His range is much better than he's being given credit for.
Most of his lapses in coverage last season were mental, not physical. In fact, he posted better coverage stats than Weatherspoon did. The Falcons need Bartu to show his potential and start making more plays in coverage this year by creating turnovers.
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If he can start knocking some more balls away on the snaps that he is targeted, he'll show that he might be a better linebacker on the field than Weatherspoon has been the past few years. Because at this point, Bartu is an athletic upgrade over the oft-injured Weatherspoon.
As an overall defender, the Falcons linebacker needs to stop missing tackles. The 12 he missed last year is way too high, and hopefully, it's corrected. He just needs to bring the mental side of his game up to the same level that the physical side of it is at.
Off the Field, Paul Worrilow will have to step up into the leadership role
As good as Sean Weatherspoon was on the field, the biggest question comes from losing the leadership that he provides off the field. The Falcons linebackers love Weatherspoon, but so does the entire defense and even team for that matter. William Moore said it best in an interview with ESPN's Vaughn McClure:
Now, we have to take leadership to a different route because everybody's not Spoon. It's kinda worse that we have, I'm not going to say inexperienced linebackers, but we have younger 'backers. I could see if we have three or four guys who have been in the league for over six, seven, eight years. But we have guys who are just getting into the league or that are in the second year or third year or whatever. Spoon was the guy that led those guys. And they would tell you that. He was their voice. It's going to be tough not having him around.
This is where Moore and Paul Worrilow will have to step up even more as leaders in the defense. Worrilow was a captain at Delaware and has shown leadership already in his short time as a Falcons' veteran this season. Jay Adams pointed out that Worrilow and Moore have been taking on that role already:
As a rookie last year, his head was swimming a bit, and he was just trying to make the roster. However, this year, Worrilow has added some weight so that he could take on blockers much better than he did last year at the 232 pounds he's listed at.
Now that he's got his bearings, Worrilow can finally act like the man he is on and off the field. That's a leader. The Falcons need someone to step up in the wake of losing Weatherspoon, and if anyone can do it, it's Paul Worrilow.
If a veteran is added, it will be for depth
The Falcons have been looking into some veterans the past couple of days after bringing in Jonathan Vilma, Tim Dobbins and Kevin Burnett. However, they won't sign someone to be a starter. Pete Prisco of CBS makes a great point that it makes no sense to bring in an old player to replace Weatherspoon:
It makes no sense for a team to sign an aging, slower player when a player goes down like in Atlanta and Dallas.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) June 11, 2014
The Falcons should stick with what they have at linebacker or bring in a younger, quicker talent to compete for a roster spot with their draft picks. The idea that Vilma, Dobbins or Burnett would be starting if they are signed shows a lack of trust in Bartu and Worrilow.
It doesn't seem like an idea that's been kicked around Flowery Branch at all, either. The Falcons don't seem to want to sign a linebacker unless it's going to be a depth signing. They want a mentor who can teach the younger players.
That's definitely something that would be nice to have, but they have better natural talent on the roster than what is available in free agency. That says much more about the lack of talent out there in free agency than of the talent on the Falcons roster too.
Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow have something to prove this season. Signing a veteran who isn't better than either of them and starting them over either of them would be a complete waste of money. The only way a signing makes sense is if they bring someone in for pure depth.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required), ESPN.com, CFBStats or NFL.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac and Rotoworld.