When you separate their need for a pass-rusher, the Atlanta Falcons appear relatively secure at linebacker. The unit is anchored by Sean Weatherspoon and the team got production from undrafted free agents Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu in 2013, with only room to get better in 2014.
But there may not be as much security as it initially seems. Weatherspoon is coming off an injury-filled season and is entering his contract year where he’ll be set to hit free agency in 2015. Worrilow and Bartu fared well for rookies, but are far from proven at the position.
The team also has Akeem Dent in the mix, adding depth and helping out on special team. But Dent has struggled the past two years when asked to start. And it’s telling in how quickly the Falcons pulled the plug on him as the starting middle linebacker last year in favor of Worrilow, given Dent’s much higher draft status. At this point, the team should only see Dent as an experienced backup in the event of another injury at the position.
The key is Weatherspoon, who is slowly recovering from a knee injury suffered late last year. Spoon also missed a significant portion of 2013 with a foot injury and whether or not he can stay healthy is an unanswered question. He has missed a total of 17 games due to injuries over four seasons with the Falcons. If Spoon comes back in 2014 and has a strong year and avoids injury, it’s likely the Falcons will look to re-sign him to a long-term contract to continue anchoring the defense. But if not, then the team may need to be prepared to move on.
Bartu flashed some things late in the year as a replacement for Spoon but he’s far from a proven commodity. Bartu has good athleticism, but needs to improve in his instincts and awareness for the position. He spent his rookie season primarily playing strong-side linebacker as an injury fill-in for Kroy Biermann, but could move to the weak side if the team is successful in adding an edge pass-rusher in the draft. But at this point Bartu remains a developmental option as opposed to someone that can be penciled in right now as a future starter.
Worrilow had a strong rookie year and showed excellent instincts and awareness given his youth and lack of experience. He will need to continue to get better as a tackler and in coverage to truly take that next step to becoming a trusted starter. But the presence of Dent behind him and the fact that he handled starting duties for an extended period last year should have the Falcons more confident in his future than that of Bartu.
Outside the current four, there are no other true linebackers on the roster. The Falcons will be in the market to add another insurance policy at the position, someone that not only adds depth but also is a potential candidate to be a starter in the near future.
The Falcons need another athletic linebacker that can play on passing downs, since that deficiency led to Dent’s benching as well as the eventual dismissals of Curtis Lofton and Stephen Nicholas.
Given that Spoon is a former first-round pick, any player taken in the middle rounds of the 2014 draft won’t be on the same plane athletically. But the higher said prospect is selected, the better an athlete he’s likely to be.
Any draft pick selected may be relegated mainly to special teams as a rookie, but in the event of Spoon’s departure in 2015, he should offer some potential to compete with Bartu for the vacated starting position. Ideally, Weatherspoon will have a great 2014 and any draft pick selected this year will be used as a capable backup in the event of another injury down the road.
Ultimately the Falcons can’t really control what happens in 2014 in terms of whether Spoon stays healthy, or whether Bartu and Worrilow take those next steps in their NFL development. The goal of adding a linebacker in the middle rounds of the 2014 draft is about giving themselves an insurance policy in case some or none of those things happen.