When the news broke earlier this week that Sean Weatherspoon had torn his achilles and would miss the upcoming season you could almost hear the cries of “here we go again” as Falcon fans once again lamented the seemingly never ending stream of bad luck that has surrounded Flowery Branch for the last 12 months. At first the news did seem devastating as the Falcons have now lost not only their best defensive player but also the emotional leader of a team that desperately needs its leaders after the devastation that was last season.
Now, I am not going to try and suggest that losing Weatherspoon is a positive for the team but there are reasons to believe that his loss does not spell doom for the Falcons hopefully new look defense.
I like most Falcon fans am a huge Weatherspoon fan. He is one of my favorite players in the league. However, his play over the last couple of seasons has been subpar (mostly due to injuries), and there was no guarantee that Spoon would have returned to his Pro Bowl level of play from a couple of seasons ago.
If we remove the injuries from the equation there is still no guarantee that Spoon would have adapted well to moving inside in the 3-4 defense that the Falcons will certainly be utilizing more than ever before under Mike Smith. Personally I feel Spoon would have made the transition fine, but in reality he would still play at his best in a 4-3 scheme.
Weatherspoon’s injury now opens the door for Joplo Bartu who looks pretty much nailed on to now start in his place. Bartu is a player who really excites me, and paring him up with Worrilow inside gives the Falcons an extremely young and exciting duo at the heart of its defense. Last season Falcons fans, myself included, fell in love with the UDFA Paul Worrilow and the excellent season he managed to put together as the rest of the defense imploded around him. While Worrilow’s play was extremely impressive I felt then and still feel now that Bartu is the player with the higher ceiling who can be a dynamic force on defense. Bartu who like Worrilow has added weight this off-season is a player who can be moved all over the defense, something Mike Nolan will surely look to utilize. Bartu can legitimately play any of the linebacker spots in either a 4-3 or a 3-4 and he is able to play coverage, play the run and rush the passer. Bartu also is more ideally suited to the ILB in a 3-4 than Weatherspoon.
Bartu isn’t the player Weatherspoon is yet but he has the talent and skill set that could ultimately see him being the long term replacement for Spoon.
Unlike last season the Falcons now have some depth at linebacker, especially inside linebacker. By my count the Falcons currently have Worrilow, Bartu, Dent, Shembo, Spruill and Smallwood fighting for the inside linebacker spots. Dent is not loved by Falcons fans but he should enjoy the switch to a 3-4 and he is a useful backup to have. As for the others, Shembo has been moved inside which is a good move from the Falcons coaches as he didn’t have the athleticism or skill set to play outside. Shembo could actually be a really good inside linebacker in a year or too, and his versatility means he can probably be used as a backup for all linebacker positions. Spruill to me is a career backup who will make his living on special teams. I still don’t like this draft pick but hopefully he proves me wrong. Smallwood is a player I liked during the draft process and who I thought was an absolute steal in the back end of the 7th round. Smallwood to me is a great fit for the 3-4 defense. He’s stout and strong enough to handle it inside and his instincts are excellent. Playing him inside in a 3-4 will hide his lack of sideline to sideline speed which is the only glaring weakness in his game.
Losing a player like Spoon is never good but I do think the Falcons have the personnel now to hopefully cope with an injury of this magnitude. Personally I think Bartu will be more than an adequate fill in for Spoon and in fact I’m more concerned with replacing Spoon’s leadership than his play. Spoon was the emotional leader of the defense and brought that physical smash mouth style of football which is what endeared him to fans so much. The Falcons will now have to look to William Moore and potentially Paul Worrilow to replace Spoon’s leadership. One interesting thing to keep an eye on will be who gets the green dot in training camp, Worrilow is the stand out candidate as his work effort and maturity make him the ideal choice to be the QB of the defense.
No one likes to see a player go down, especially not one as passionate and enthusiastic as Spoon but hopefully now he can get himself fully healthy and he gets resigned next year in all likelihood to a one year prove it deal.