When the Falcons drafted linebacker Sean Weatherspoon with last year’s first round pick, they were hoping that together with middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, it would form a stabilizing core in the middle of the team’s defense.
Weatherspoon got off to a promising start as a rookie, but a mid-season injury derailed much of his progress. If he can bounce back and have a strong 2011 season, then the Falcons defense can potentially make the next step going forward.
Spoon has the potential to be the team’s best linebacker and essentially the heart of the defense. While Curtis Lofton has him on seniority, Spoon is the superior player in terms of speed and versatility. Not only does he have the potential to be an impact performer against the run, but also against the pass, which is a major area of weakness for Lofton.
Spoon also has the potential to play multiple positions for the Falcons. He got reps at both outside spots last year, but started the season as the team’s strongside linebacker. Where he plays in 2011 will largely depend on whether the team decides to bring back free agents Mike Peterson or Stephen Nicholas. All signs seem to point to Peterson being the preferred candidate to return, which will likely mean Spoon will remain on the strongside. But the team also drafted Akeem Dent, and it seems that his future prospects are at the same position. Meaning that eventually, Spoon should find a home at his more natural weakside position.
Spoon made his share of rookie mistakes last year. He was caught out of position several times in coverage as well as against the run, and missed some tackles. But he also flashed his playmaking ability, showing his speed and range, and showing he can be an effective blitzer and cover man at times.
The key for him is adding experience and continuity. Staying on the field for the entire 16-game season should go a long way for his development and progress.
If Spoon can develop and be more comfortable with his assignments and duties in coverage, then the Falcons can have a much more reliable cover man in the middle of the defense than they’ve had in recent years. Their safeties aren’t especially great cover men, and as previously mentioned neither is Lofton. And they’ve continue to have question marks at the nickel corner spot. If Spoon can develop into the type of player that can match up with opposing tight ends, it could go a long way to solidifying the middle of the Falcons defense. A year ago we saw the Carolina Panthers use MLB Jon Beason to good effect in matching up with Tony Gonzalez. Having a linebacker that the coaching staff isn’t afraid to put in one on one situations with quality players on opposing teams will be an asset. Especially when considering how many good tight ends are in the NFC South (Kellen Winslow, Jimmy Graham, Jeremy Shockey) as well as the rest that the Falcons will face this year including Greg Olsen, Jermichael Finley, Dallas Clark, Owen Daniels, and Marcedes Lewis.
Spoon’s speed and range also mean he can impact against the run because of his ability to effectively play sideline to sideline. That too will be tested this year as the Falcons face a number of top notch NFL runners in Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, and Jahvid Best. There’s a lot of speed to burn in that group, and having a linebacker that can cover a lot of ground can potentially be a major asset.
It’s going to take some time before Weatherspoon is able to reach his full potential, and it’s unlikely that is going to be this year. But that won’t mean he can’t make a significant improvement this year. And if he does, it should go a long way to helping the Falcons reach their postseason goals.