Sean Weatherspoon was expected to be the veteran presence who could lead a potentially drastically changed defense. Things did not go well. Another season and Atlanta is missing Weatherspoon.
Paul Worrilow hopes to improve on an impressive rookie season. While at times he was outmatched as a rookie, another year in the NFL and an offseason of adding weight will hopefully do wonders for the former UDFA. With the Weatherspoon injury, Worrilow is the favorite to start at ILB.
Joplo Bartu, along with Worrilow, made up a duo of UDFA linebackers that earned plenty of playing time by outperforming veterans. He had his ups and downs but likely has a higher ceiling than Worrilow. His role in 2014 is not as defined and seems to have plenty of competition in 3-4 formations.
Pat Angerer fits Atlanta's model of signing an oft-injured veteran in the hopes his wheels don't fall off in the first half of the season. Angerer, along with Shembo, Smallwood, Spruill and a few UDFAs are expected to compete at ILB.
If he makes the roster, which is far from guaranteed, Angerer would be lucky to both stay healthy and beat out enough players to contribute on defense.
Yawin Smallwood, a Dave Choate favorite, provides some nice coverage skills from the ILB spot. Smallwood was able to measure up at UConn and showed the ability to penetrate the backfield by leading his team in sacks and putting up 9.5 TFL. Smallwood is a project that could contribute if he bulks up and gets a bit bigger.
Marquis Spruill should be a lock for the roster after the Falcons traded up to select the inside linebacker but is doubtful to crack his way into the starting defense. Spruill is undersized and is not known for his coverage abilities but would be a good bet as a special teams contributor.
Tyler Starr is oddly enough listed as a linebacker and not as a defensive end along with the other pass rushers on the team. Starr, and the following two players, are noticeably larger and were expected to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but are not listed alongside Kroy Biermann or Osi Umenyiora. Already a fan favorite, Starr comes into the league having played against lower competition in South Dakota and lacks some physical traits you would like to see from a possible contributor. However, the lack of true pass rushing OLBs on the roster may guarantee Starr a roster spot.
Prince Shembo is a player that intrigues me as a versatile player that should be able to get to the quarterback from the ILB position. Thought to be an edge rusher in the NFL, the Falcons are planning to push the fourth round pick inside. If true, I really wonder what this defense will look like.
Jacques Smith is an undrafted free agent that has good size but lacks the desired speed to get after the quarterback. He is worth a mention after
The Oracle Vaughn McClure included Smith on his projected Falcons roster. While at Tennessee, Smith played both defensive end and outside linebacker, giving him a bit of versatility.
Brenden Daley is likely ticketed as a camp body playing ILB. The Hawaii UDFA dealt with injuries and a concussion while putting up 90 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles.
Walker May is an average athlete and managed to plug together a few sacks in his last few years at Vanderbilt. The UDFA is a bad mix of undersized and too slow to end up in the final 53.
Long time Falcon Stephen Nicholas was cut after a disappointing season. Akeem Dent was traded after a disastrous season. Neither played up to snuff, and with Weatherspoon out, none of the Falcons expected 2013 starters will play for Atlanta in 2014.
The Falcons are likely switching to predominantly a 3-4 defense based on their free agency and draft moves. However, the Falcons official website has everyone listed as if the team was still running a 4-3, so we are following their lead.
The Big Question
How will this defense look?
We know the team will run 3-4 formations. We know the team will run 4-3 formations. We know they plan to play a healthy amount of nickel. The Falcons have the personnel to (pretty much) play any of them competently.
Best Case Scenario
There is so much in flux between who plays what and where... that there are multiple best case scenarios. I would think getting quality pass rush from the linebackers, such as Shembo inside with the likes of Starr and Smith getting reps outside. My fingers are crossed that Mike Nolan will shift between different formations pre-snap and make the defense very hard to predict.
Personally, I want to Worrilow moving into a leadership role and becoming a more complete player. Like most position groups, some production from the rookies and development from the young guys would do wonders.
Worst Case Scenario
We fall into a time machine that brings us to game one of the 2013 season.
How many inside linebackers do we need? After trading away Akeem Dent and cutting Nicholas, the team seems content to throw a bunch of linebackers at the wall and see what sticks. Just about anyone who steps up has a shot at securing a roster spot, and anyone with some versatility will likely get looks in Atlanta's many different formations.