It seems that no good news ever comes out of offseason practices for NFL squads, and this sentiment rang true on Tuesday for the Atlanta Falcons. The team announced on Tuesday that starting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon had ruptured his Achilles tendon earlier that day, an injury that will cost the former first round pick the entire 2014 campaign.
Weatherspoon, who missed 9 games last season due to a Lisfranc foot sprain and later a knee injury that prematurely ended his year, had been limited in the workouts to simply running drills on a side field. Weatherspoon was reportedly running while being monitored by the medical staff when the injury occurred.
The loss of Weatherspoon is an absolutely critical one for the Falcons. Atlanta’s defense that played primarily without the former Missouri Tiger in 2013 was stunningly subpar, finishing the year 27th in yards allowed, 27th in points allowed per contest, and 31st in rushing yards allowed.
Weatherspoon’s injury could not come at a worse time financially, as his rookie contract is up after this season. With 47 games under his belt over the course of four seasons, Weatherspoon has shown signs of promise when he’s been on the field; he just has not been on the field enough. One could understand general manager Thomas Dimitroff reaching agreement on a team-friendly deal to retain Weatherspoon, but any deal that Weatherspoon signs will have its fair share of incentives.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was undoubtedly counting on Weatherspoon to lead the way in what most expect to be a 3-4 scheme for the Falcons, so his departure understandably leaves a giant gap in Atlanta’s defense. Last season saw undrafted rookie Joplo Bartu play very well in Weatherspoon’s absence, finishing the season with 47 tackles and 3.5 sacks in sixteen games, leaving it a safe bet that Bartu will step in once again.
Other options currently on the roster at this point include Akeem Dent, 5th round-rookie Marquis Spruill, 4th-round rookie Prince Shembo (who was recently moved to inside linebacker), and Stansly Maponga.
If the Falcons opt to look at the free agent market, there are a few interesting names that pop out. The best linebacker currently available is former Vikings standout Erin Henderson, who at twenty-seven years old should have plenty left in the tank. Henderson, who recorded 69 tackles with 4.0 sacks and two interceptions last year, would require some adjustment considering he played middle linebacker in Minnesota, but his addition would certainly bolster the team’s questionable linebacker corps.
A name most Falcons fans may want to cross off their list is Jonathan Vilma, who played his last six seasons with the rival New Orleans Saints. Although Vilma is on the wrong side of thirty and is coming off an injury-riddled 2013 season, signing the ten-year veteran would bring some stability to the roster and could provide much-needed leadership to a position that is filled mainly with rookies and second-year players.
James Harrison is a player that fits the mold of Vilma in being a seasoned player that can step it for the time being. Harrison had a disappointing one-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals, recording just 16 tackles with 2.0 sacks and one interception before being released by the team in March of 2014. At thirty-six years old, the defensive hero of Super Bowl XLIII may have very well played his last down in the NFL, but Coach Smith and his staff would be remiss not to kick the tires and see if they can find a bargain.
The Atlanta Falcons had high hopes for Weatherspoon to lead the way for the defense in what was supposed to be a return to the top in 2014; instead, his absence leaves question marks across the board and has already provided the Falcons faithful with flashbacks of one year ago.