With last night's deeply depressing news that Sean Weatherspoon is going to miss the 2014 season, we're left to figure out how linebacker will shake out in his absence.
Obviously, losing 'Spoon doesn't doom the Falcons' season. The team has played 12 games without him the last two seasons and have a number of linebackers on the current roster, giving them options and legitimate competition, if not great replacements. A healthy 'Spoon was very likely one of the best linebackers the Falcons would be able to trot out, so this is a blow any way you slice it, as well as a damn shame in general.
I'm assuming, for the purposes of this exercise, that Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Massaquoi, and perhaps Marquis Spruill will be playing outside. Weatherspoon was likely ticketed for inside linebacker duties in the Falcons' new 3-4 and nickel looks, so that's where his replacement will need to play. I've got two frontrunners for that spot, plus a note about another player. I'm also assuming the Falcons aren't going to look outside the organization for his replacement, which may be a faulty assumption. Vaughn McClure tossed out Dan Connor's name this morning, and you'll recall he worked out for Atlanta:
Worrilow will be starting, at this point. He's virtually a lock, and it's time to start eating this delicious plate of mangy crow right now.
As I said before, I wasn't 100% certain the Falcons saw Worrilow as an ideal fit for inside linebacker duties given some of the weaknesses in his game from 2013, hence the possibility of a cut. I predicted this even though I like Worrilow as a player, respect his athleticism and drive and even though I recognized it was a bit of a stretch. When he came to OTAs looking like he had packed on weight without sacrificing that athleticism, I knew that prediction was going to start looking stupid, and it's only gotten worse since.
Without 'Spoon in Atlanta, Worrilow will likely be leaned upon to change defensive assignments and the coaching staff is raving about him. It'd be an upset if he wasn't a starter. Hopefully he can make great strides and be the stabilizing force in the middle the Falcons will need. As you might expect, I'm not unhappy to be wrong.
Bartu should be the favorite for 'Spoon's gig. He's a second-year veteran, he's drawn strong praise from the coaching staff and he's a tremendous athlete in his own right.
The caveat here is that Bartu is so useful in so many ways. The Falcons just moved Prince Shembo inside and Worrilow really projects as a thumping ILB, but Bartu can, in this humble blogger's opinion, play both inside and outside. Out of the three guys mentioned here, he's probably got the most potential in coverage. In some ways, it makes sense to have him moving all over, contributing wherever needed. It's a role that would make use of his versatility while giving him a ton of snaps all over the formation.
If our next candidate can't hit the ground running and claim the job, however, Bartu will probably be right next to Worrilow come Week 1.
Shembo's an interesting case. He's moving inside, he's a rookie fourth round pick and he doesn't project to be an immediate impact player at the NFL level. So why would I consider him a possibility?
Mostly because the Falcons clearly like him at ILB. He may be able to rush the passer from the middle and he's a player with real talent, size and strength, so if he takes well to coaching, he could be a useful player right out of the gate. Either way, he'll likely get more snaps than you average fourth round rookie. Bartu may have an inside track, but Shembo could be a long-term starter here, and the Falcons may want to
It's certainly possible you could see these two players split snaps at the position, though I'd bet on Bartu having the advantage when all is said and done. He's simply more established, and his talent is clear. Just don't rule out Shembo entirely.
It doesn't appear that Yawin Smallwood, Marquis Spruill or even Akeem Dent will be realistic candidates to start unless something changes, so there's my best guess today. Dent has special teams value but appears to have been surpassed by Worrilow and Bartu long ago, while Smallwood and Spruill are rookies who aren't standing out this early.
Share your thoughts in the comments.