As has been the case the past two summers, I will look at evaluating some of the Falcons current players. Will be looking to assess their strengths, weaknesses, and what fans can expect to see from them in 2012. Let’s kick things off with the player that anchors the defense in Sean Weatherspoon.
Pros: Spoon possesses very good range and speed, able to make plays anywhere on the field from sideline to sideline. Does a good job as a “run and hit” linebacker, able to flow to the football and make plays in pursuit. He has good instincts when it comes to reading and reacting to plays, and does a good job taking good angles to the football. Packs some power and pop as a tackler, and will lower the boom to deliver a big hit to the ballcarrier. Has very good athleticism with good flexibility and hips, making him an ideal coverage linebacker. Capable of matching up with some of the league’s better tight ends. Is a very effective blitzer due to his speed and short-area burst, able to explode upfield and into the backfield to disrupt the pass. Has a loquacious and jubilant personality that makes him effective in a leadership position.
Cons: Not always a reliable tackler and can be overpowered at the point of attack. Doesn’t do a great job getting off blocks at the point of attack, causing him to get caught up in traffic against the inside run. Also has some difficulty getting off blocks in space, particularly when it comes to screens. Despite his natural skillset, still needs to develop better awareness when in coverage. Aggressive play can get him in trouble at times by bordering on being overaggressive.
2012 Outlook: Weatherspoon was arguably the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL last season, joining the ranks of players like Lance Briggs, Daryl Smith, and Chad Greenway in a position group that has largely dominated by 3-4 players that get nationwide recognition. It’s one of the reasons why Weatherspoon is still a bit under the radar from a national perspective. With new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan calling the shots, the Falcons will continue to look at Spoon as being one of the lynchpins of their defense. He was good enough last year to earn defensive MVP honors from this site and was overlooked in Pro Bowl voting. But this upcoming season, those things hopefully will change as Weatherspoon should be poised for his first Pro Bowl appearance.
Spoon is going to be a key piece of this Falcons defense because he’s going to be an everydown player, and he’s one of the few linebackers in the league that really possesses the potential to shine on all three downs. He’s at his best when defending the run, but he’s shown flashes of his huge potential as a pass rusher and cover man. He should get more opportunities to blitz with Nolan’s more aggressive approach.
One issue that Spoon is going to have to face is that he’ll be tasked with taking a larger role in the leadership of the defense. In the past, Spoon could defer to others like Curtis Lofton and Mike Peterson, but with Lofton gone, he won’t have that luxury anymore. He’ll be expected to take the reins of the linebacker group and this defense as a whole. It’s a role that he should do well in.
It’s also going to be interesting to see how the shake-up at middle linebacker does affect his play this year. Playing beside a good run plugger like Curtis Lofton allowed Spoon ample opportunities to flow to the football. There might be more instances where Spoon will be asked to fill at the point of attack, which is not necessarily the strength of his game.
Another area that may be missing from his game is the ability to create turnovers. It is something that often distinguishes the top linebackers in the league, and it’s something that Spoon has yet to do in his NFL career. He has not caused a fumble or made an interception, and that is something that hopefully will change in 2012. If so, then he should be well on his way to his first Pro Bowl appearance and being the defensive leader for the Falcons.