If you ask many Falcons fans to identify one of the weakest positions on defense for the Falcons, there's a good chance that middle linebacker will be mentioned. While the team drafted defensive players at DE/OLB, CB and DT - the team did not use any of their picks on this position. Is that due to confidence in the existing players or a lack of talent in the draft? Let's take a look at the options going into the 2015 season.
The presumed starter going into the season, Worrilow has drawn both praise and criticism from the Falcons fan base. On the one hand, Worrilow has racked up significant tackles over his two years on the team. On the other, he's often struggled to disengage with blocks and has shown to be a liability in coverage. Fans argue over his upside and whether his struggles were scheme related or talent related. This year will likely tell us the full story. It's worth noting that Dan Quinn has been very impressed with Worrilow's off-season so far, and the it's clear the young linebacker has the respect of his teammates, earning team captain honors in just his second season. But the questions won't go away until the season is underway, and Worrilow will likely have many eyes focused on his performance.
Coming in at the same time as Worrilow, it's easy to forget that Bartu actually earned a starting job first (replacing Stephen Nicholas in the lineup). However, Bartu didn't take a significant step forward in year 2 and began losing snaps to rookie Prince Shembo, who was playing somewhat out of position. Bartu has flashed good speed and decent coverage skills, but he's not shown to be particularly great at any one thing. Given his pedigree, Bartu will need a strong off-season and camp just to secure his roster spot, much less count on playing time.
Having Stupar listed as a potential middle linebacker tells part of the story here. Stupar is a good special teams player, but at this point in his career he hasn't shown to be anything more than that. It's still possible that he could take a big step forward this year, but the presumption is that his career as a good special teams player will continue down those lines.
The fifth round pick from last year never got a chance to prove his worth, as he went down early with a torn ACL. He's an intriguing player that has good straight line speed, but appears to lack the fluidity to play in the middle - though that's where he's currently listed. Right now, Spruill projects as more of a special-teams contributor than anything, but his physical skills may make him a potential backup for the position.
Outlook for 2015
Of all the positions on the defense, this single position may bring the most cause for concern. There's genuine hope that Paul Worrilow will find his perfect scheme fit under Quinn and that his weaknesses will be minimized. There's also optimism that the man himself - who is as hard-working as they come - will take a step forward just by having another off-season of training and mental preparation. But if you're worried about this position going into 2015, I can't blame you. The questions surrounding this position - both starters and backups - won't likely go away until the season is well underway.