For the Falcons, things took a turn for the worse when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the unit’s leader and best player, was injured in June with a torn Achilles. Weatherspoon’s loss has forced the team to look in the others’ directions to compensate.
Much of the void left by Weatherspoon is expected to be filled by middle linebacker Paul Worrilow. Among the three projected starters, Worrilow is the most solidified in his role. As a second-year player, he will have to take on a much larger mantle, becoming the unit’s top playmaker and leader on defense.
While Worrilow possesses the necessary traits for leadership, it remains to be seen if he can perform up to them. Worrilow came out strong last summer as an undrafted free agent to make the team, and this summer will need a similar emergence to lead the team.
Strong-side outside linebacker Kroy Biermann is expected to return from his own Achilles injury to flank Worrilow on the edge. After using Biermann as a bit of a “joker” player in his first season under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in 2012, the team moved him fully to linebacker last summer. But Biermann was injured too early in the season to know if that transition was successful. Thus, he’ll have to prove himself again this summer.
Beside Worrilow at the other inside position that is expected to replace Weatherspoon is Joplo Bartu. Bartu, a 2013 undrafted free agent like Worrilow, also quickly impressed the coaching staff last summer with his range and athleticism. He quickly carved out a role in the sub-packages due to his coverage potential, and relative to his undrafted status as a rookie, played well in 2013. But there have been recent concerns over whether the coaching staff is ready to place the same amount of trust in him this year.
Bartu is expected to be pushed by 2014 fourth-round pick Prince Shembo. Shembo played outside linebacker and defensive end at Notre Dame, but will be moved inside where his subpar athleticism and lack of top-level pass-rushing skills won’t be as much of a problem. Shembo however does brings more size, toughness and physicality than potentially either Worrilow or Bartu offer at the position. But it may be a tall order to expect him to quickly assimilate to a brand new position and play at a high level this year. Even if Shembo does not win the starting spot, he’ll be expected to be a key contributor on special teams this season.
Also in the mix may be veteran Tim Dobbins. Dobbins played for Nolan during their shared days in Miami in 2010, and has made a career of being an injury replacement with various teams. At this point, Dobbins is more an insurance policy in case both Bartu and Shembo falter this summer. He’s a solid special teams player, which is his likeliest avenue to making the team. How much confidence the team has in Bartu, Shembo, and the rest of the reserves will likely determine if Dobbins sticks.
Those other reserves include a pair of draft picks: fifth-rounder Marquis Spruill and seventh-rounder Yawin Smallwood. Spruill will compete as a reserve on the weak side behind Bartu and Shembo, while Smallwood will play in the middle behind Worrilow and Dobbins. Spruill has good speed and range, but needs to get bigger and stronger. Smallwood is much more of a thumper, but may be athletically limited. Both players’ ability to make the roster is likely tied to their ability to contribute immediately on special teams, since neither is likely to land a starting gig. However, obviously, the bigger either can impact on defense during the preseason will certainly help their chances of sticking. It’s possible either could be released due to the sheer numbers at the position, but both are very likely to land on the practice squad if that was to occur.
Outside, the primary backup will be Tyler Starr, another seventh-round pick. Starr may be the most talented of the Falcons four draft picks at linebacker, but is arguably the rawest as well. He’ll be groomed as the heir apparent to Biermann on the strong side, as both share similar traits. A key for Starr will be showcasing his pass-rushing potential this summer as well as performing on special teams. Like Spruill and Smallwood, there’s also the possibility that a sluggish summer could lead to Starr’s release. However, given that he only has to hold off the likes of two undrafted free agents in Walker May and Jacques Smith increases his chances.
Both May and Smith are converted college defensive ends that will be asked to play standing up at linebacker with the Falcons. Both are long shots to make the team, but if they can show pass-rush potential it may improve their chances of at least making the practice squad.
This is a position the Falcons brass will watch closely this summer since it’s the most unproven position on the defense. It’s possible that if players like Bartu and Shembo fail to impress this summer, the team will scour the waiver wire in late August for more veteran help.