The state of the Atlanta Falcons’ linebacker position got a bit more dire thanks to the impending loss of free agent Sean Weatherspoon. Upgrading the position group was already a priority, but will become an even bigger one should Weatherspoon depart.
One could certainly argue that the Falcons featured the league’s least effective group of linebackers in 2014. A large part of that was due to the injury that put Weatherspoon down for the entire season in June. The Falcons failed to fill that void last season, and it will likely be a priority of new head coach Dan Quinn to correct that mistake this offseason.
Weatherspoon would fit well as the weak-side linebacker in Quinn’s scheme, which emphasizes athleticism, speed and physicality at the position, traits that Weatherspoon has in abundance. The scheme Quinn ran in Seattle asked its linebackers to play a lot in space, lining up both in man and zone coverage. This puts an emphasis on athletic linebackers that can run with running backs, tight ends and receivers in the open field. Weatherspoon was one of the few linebackers already on the Falcons’ roster that fit this bill.
As things stand today, Joplo Bartu would be slated to replace Spoon on the weak side. Bartu also possesses the athletic traits to be successful in the new scheme. He should benefit from the simplification of the scheme, as he often struggled in 2014 with the mental aspect of playing linebacker. That led to the Falcons employing Prince Shembo at inside linebacker for a large part of 2014, despite the fact that he was playing that position for the first time in his career. That was just a strong indicator of Bartu’s limitations, as the team didn’t think having a completely green rookie was a downgrade. But despite expected improvement from Bartu, the Falcons are almost certainly going to look at adding someone to replace Weatherspoon as a starter this offseason.
Even if they retain Weatherspoon, adding depth on the weak side was going to be a priority given the veteran’s inability to stay healthy. Spoon has missed a combined 33 games over the course of his five-year career, including 25 over the past two seasons. Such depth could be developed as an insurance policy in the event that Weatherspoon went down with injury again.
Had the Falcons retained Weatherspoon, they could have concentrated on upgrading the other two spots at linebacker this offseason. Shembo is expected to move to the strong side in the new scheme after spending his rookie playing inside on the weak side. Shembo has enough athleticism and physicality to become a starter for the Falcons in 2015, but he will have to reestablish himself as a long-term option. With a brand new coaching staff that has no loyalty to him, he will no longer get the benefit of the doubt.
While Paul Worrilow was the leader of this group last season in the absence of Weatherspoon, his poor performance in 2014 makes the middle linebacker spot also in need of an upgrade. Worrilow’s best traits are his toughness and instincts, but he leaves a lot to be desired from the neck down in terms of athletic and physical traits. So much so that it’ll be interesting to see if the new coaching staff views him as a long-term starter or like Shembo, more of a stopgap. Compared to players Quinn coached in Seattle, Worrilow is more reminiscent of special teams ace and backup middle linebacker Heath Farwell than starter Bobby Wagner.
Players like Nate Stupar, Marquis Spruill and Allen Bradford will also be in the mix for roster spots, but more than likely will be competing for roles on special teams rather than vying for starting positions in 2015.
In the cases of Bartu, Shembo and Worrilow, it’s possible that the Falcons could make do with one or two as starters this year, but certainly not all three. The Falcons will make it a priority to upgrade at least one of the spots if not all three. Wagner was the lynchpin of the Seahawks’ linebacker corps, so it would make sense that middle linebacker would take precedence over the outside spots.
But the Falcons may find it easier to upgrade the outside spots, especially if they attack the position in free agency. Malcolm Smith is one potential option for the team on the open market, having played under Quinn in Seattle. He could be slotted into that weak-side position, the same role he played with the Seahawks. Smith’s primary role with the Seahawks over the past two years has been as a coverage linebacker, getting looks in sub-packages. But he may be poised to become a starter in Atlanta.
Another ex-Seahawk that the Falcons could target, should he be released as expected, is current New Orleans Saints linebacker David Hawthorne. Hawthorne was a productive starter for the Seahawks from 2009 to 2011 before joining the Saints. He played both inside and outside for the Seahawks, but probably would be pegged to play in the middle for the Falcons.
Smith and Hawthorne might not be the only players connected to the Falcons’ coaching staff that the team could seek on the open market. Defensive coaches Richard Smith and Raheem Morris might draw players from their former teams: Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to Atlanta.
Nate Irving, Mason Foster and Geno Hayes are all impending free agents that have experience playing under Smith or Morris in recent years, and all three could be penciled in as Falcons starters. Irving played both middle and strong-side linebacker the past two years with the Broncos, giving him some added versatility as an option in Atlanta. Foster played in the middle for the Buccaneers, while Hayes has played outside in years past.
It’d appear likely that the Falcons will at least try to sign one starter in free agency, but their true salvation may lie in the draft. Using one of their second-day draft picks in the second or third round may give the team the long-term option as a starter that they are looking for. One obvious candidate the team could look at is Eric Kendricks, who played inside linebacker under current Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich at UCLA the past few years. Kendricks has the potential to project either as a weak-side or middle linebacker in the NFL and would likely fill whichever spot the Falcons don’t address in free agency.
In the end, linebacker is going to be a priority position for the Falcons this offseason as they attempt to improve their defense. It won’t receive the attention and money that defensive end is expected to receive, but it won’t be far behind.