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.
Omar Gaither is technically the third-string middle linebacker, although possesses the experience to play all three linebacker positions. He’s a free agent and probably won’t return, since the need for veteran depth is lessened with Bartu and Worrilow gaining loads of experience last season.
2014 will represent a big year for Sean Weatherspoon, which is another reason why the Falcons need to upgrade their depth with more athleticism. This upcoming season represents the final year on Weatherspoon’s contract, and his durability concerns call into question whether or not the Falcons are going to be willing to pay him the long-term deal. It’s likely that the Falcons will manage to lock up Weatherspoon, who is one of the better players on their defense, but past mistakes when it comes to guaranteeing large deals to injury-prone players might temper their enthusiasm to break the bank for him. Thus, the Falcons could seek to add an insurance policy that can be a backup for Weatherspoon in 2014, but also be a decent option if things don’t work out long-term with him beyond this season.
That player would likely come in the draft and be another “plus” athlete that can potentially help out the team in coverage. Even if Weatherspoon winds up getting his long-term contract, this incoming linebacker, if developed, could join him in sub packages to get another cover linebacker on the field. Worrilow is expected to fill that role next season, but he is better suited to playing zone coverage than man coverage. Finding a young, athletic linebacker that can be trusted to play on an island in man coverage against quality tight ends would be a huge boost for the Falcons defense.
The Falcons may also incorporate more 3-4 looks this year. For that role, Kroy Biermann returns to potentially play the strong-side spot on the outside. In that scenario, it’s likely that Bartu will be relegated to backup duties. Although Bartu showed that he can be an effective blitzer despite not having ideal size to play outside linebacker in the 3-4. It’s even possible in that scenario that Bartu could be designated Weatherspoon’s heir apparent, with the focus being on adding a pass rusher to play outside. The Falcons are definitely in the market to upgrade their pass rush this offseason, and it’s possible that the player they deem capable of doing that may be better suited to a 3-4 defense than a 4-3 unit. If so, there won’t be huge changes for this group of players since the team already employs a hybrid scheme, although certain players that are currently designated as defensive ends might find themselves considered linebackers moving forward, including Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga.