The adversity the Atlanta Falcons faced at linebacker in 2013 should benefit the team in 2014.
The team was without stalwarts Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon for much of last season. Nicholas dealt with injuries in training camp, and ultimately lost his job as the team looked at younger, more athletic options in Joplo Bartu at strong-side linebacker position. Weatherspoon missed most of the regular season with an injury, and it thrust Paul Worrilow into the limelight after a promising summer.
Both undrafted rookies, Bartu and Worrilow, got a wealth of experience playing significant roles with the team in 2013. So much so that it is very likely that both will open up this offseason in starting roles with Bartu manning the strong side and Worrilow starting in the middle as Weatherspoon resumes his duties at weak-side linebacker.
Now Nicholas has since been released, and the team is searching to upgrade their depth at linebacker. Particularly in Bartu, the Falcons finally got another “plus” athlete on the roster besides Weatherspoon, and needs to continue that trend into 2014. Nicholas could once be described that, but time and age really started to catch up to him in 2012 where he was continually abused by opposing tight ends. Despite the upgrade in terms of athleticism from Bartu, the Falcons still struggled to check opposing tight ends in 2013. But one hope is that with a year’s worth of experience under his belt, there will be improvement from Bartu moving forward.
Worrilow was so good as Weatherspoon’s replacement at weak-side linebacker that he eventually replaced Akeem Dent as the team’s starting middle linebacker roughly a third of the way through the season. While Dent did show improvement after a lackluster 2012 season, his limited speed, range, and coverage ability just proved to be too much of a liability. While not the world’s greatest athlete himself, Worrilow proved an upgrade in those areas. But more importantly, he was a far more instinctual defender in his first season in Atlanta than Dent had showed in three years. But Dent is expected to return and help out on special teams, an area where he’s excelled at in the past, and add depth in the middle.
The Falcons announced the signings of free agent linebackers Omar Gaither and Jamar Chaney to the roster today. The team also officially announced the previously reported signing of linebacker Chase Thomas to the practice squad, as he will replace fullback Patrick DiMarco, who was promoted to the active roster.
Gaither and Chaney are both former Philadelphia Eagles, having both played for the team in 2010. After that season, Gaither signed with the Carolina Panthers to help replace Thomas Davis at outside linebacker. In 2012, he was signed mid-season by the Oakland Raiders to replace injured middle linebacker Travis Goethel. Over the course of his career, Gaither has started 44 career games at all three linebacker positions, most of which came during his days in Philadelphia. Originally a fifth round draft pick out of Tennessee for the Eagles in 2006, he started the final five games of his rookie season at weakside linebacker. He moved to middle linebacker in 2007, where he started every game and put up a career-high 102 tackles. In 2008, he moved back to the weakside, starting 10 games. Over the next two seasons, he started a total of five games as a reserve middle linebacker behind Stewart Bradley before Chaney’s emergence late in 2010 helped pushed him out the door. Gaither was cut by the Raiders this past summer. Last season with the Raiders, he totaled 14 tackles in seven appearances at middle linebacker.
Chaney was a seventh round pick by the Eagles in 2010. He started the final two games of his rookie season at middle linebacker as a replacement for Bradley. He started every game the following year, logging 92 tackles and 3 interceptions. He moved to weakside linebacker in 2012, where he started five games, mainly as a replacement for an injured Akeem Jordan. He finished the year with 24 tackles. He was cut by the Eagles this past summer.
Both players add much-needed depth at the linebacker position where weakside starter Sean Weatherspoon was placed on short-term injured reserve earlier today. The team also lost defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann for the year due to a torn Achilles, giving the team only four healthy linebackers on their active roster.
DiMarco will help fill the void left by injured fullback Bradie Ewing, who is also out for the year with a separated shoulder. DiMarco started for the Falcons at fullback in the first two preseason contests this summer in replacement of an injured Ewing.