There is no way to sugarcoat the loss for the season of Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who finished second on the team in tackles in 2012 with 114 in 13 games while only playing seven games last season because of various injuries.
However, if the Falcons are fortunate in any aspect, it is in the timing. Last season, they lost defensive end/outside linebacker Kroy Biermann in Week 2 to a torn Achilles’ tendon, the same injury that Weatherspoon suffered on Tuesday. The Falcons had spent the entirety of Organized Team Activities and training camp teaching Biermann to play outside linebacker so they could morph in and out of 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. Biermann’s injury scuttled a good deal of that plan.
At least with Weatherspoon, a first-round pick in 2010, lost in early June, the Falcons have plenty of time to attempt to replace him — or to train others to try and fill his role. With the Falcons seemingly moving to a 3-4 base defense, which will station five large players on the line of scrimmage, the idea is for those players to occupy all of the available blockers, leaving inside linebackers like Weatherspoon or a strong safety like William Moore free to make tackles at the line or behind it on running plays.
Now, the Falcons will have to look elsewhere to find a player adept at tackling – a skill that so eluded them last season – to line up next to the other inside linebacker, Paul Worrilow. In his final nine games last season, Warrilow made 99 tackles, proving his mettle in that department.
During OTAs, the Falcons have worked Joplo Bartu in the spot next to Warriolow. Like Worrilow, Bartu was an undrafted player last season but he ended up starting 12 games.
Between now and the start of training camp — truly, before the beginning of Tuesday’s mandatory mini-camp if the Falcons feel enough urgency — general manager Thomas Dimitroff will have to decide if he feels confident enough in the likes of Bartu, Akeem Dent — who has moved into more of a reserve role since the Falcons selected him in the third round in 2011 — and the four linebackers the Falcons drafted last month. If not, they will have to look to free agency, which has salary-cap ramifications.
While the Falcons increasingly are looking toward specialization with their linebackers, the loss of Weatherspoon especially hurts because he is a three-down player. If the Falcons choose to incorporate the rookies more, they would have to go more in the direction of specialization.
One of the problems they now will encounter is getting the rookies coached up fast enough. With the draft moved back several weeks this year into mid-May, coaches have said that rookies have lost out on valuable time. That is a potential obstacle.
"I don’t think it’s slowed down yet," coach Mike Smith said on Tuesday of the flow of information being thrown at the rookies. "This is really the second time for our rookies hearing it. We’re trying to bring them along and I don’t really think until we get closer to the end of our training camp will it really start to slow down for some of them. Some of them it may be the whole season that they’re dealing with it."
One player who could be thrust in right away is fifth-round pick Prince Shembo, the highest-drafted linebacker by the Falcons in May. Smith had said during rookie mini-camp that Shembo could play both inside and outside, although he is seen mainly as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. The 6-foot, 253-pound Shembo totaled 145 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 35 quarterback pressures and 19.5 sacks at Notre Dame. Shembo does not have much experience in coverage, which would make it difficult for him to be a three-down player.
Marquis Spruill (selected 168th overall) might be the most natural fit, although he is somewhat small at 6-foot, 224 pounds. His 41 tackles for loss rank second in Syracuse history. Linebacker Yawin Smallwood, selected in the seventh round out of Connecticut, would appear to have more experience in coverage. The 6-foot-4, 236-pounder is a middle linebacker who had three pass breakups and one interception in his 36-game career.
The longest shot could be Tyler Starr, another seventh-round pick who played at a lower level at South Dakota State. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Starr also appears to be built in the mold of a pass-rusher. He had 14 sacks as a senior and 27 for his career.
Whatever direction the Falcons go in, they will be hard-pressed to replace Weatherspoon’s production.
Wide receiver Roddy White joined OTAs on Tuesday, the last week of the three-week voluntary sessions. White, who has missed time while mourning the death of his half-brother, elected not to speak with the media on Tuesday. He will likely do that next week.
However, Smith and White’s teammates were glad to have him back on the field. White, who holds most of the franchise’s receiving records, was hampered by injuries in 2013 for the first time in his career. Entering his 10th season, White caught 63 balls for 711 yards last season, breaking a streak of six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Quarterback Matt Ryan spoke of what it will mean to the Falcons to have White back, along with wide receiver Julio Jones, who has not participated with the team at OTAs as he continues to rehab an injured foot.
"For us to have to have our two biggest playmakers out on the field at the same time, it makes us a different team," Ryan said on Tuesday. "Those guys are getting healthy now. We had Roddy out on the field today, which was good and I thought he looked good."
For most of the past two seasons, Robert McClain has played the third corner in the team’s nickel’s defense, which Smith said the Falcons use about 65 percent of the time. McClain has started nine games over the past two seasons.
As the Falcons look to upgrade their defense, they have acquired two more veterans at the position: Josh Wilson, an eight-year veteran who formerly played for Washington, and Javier Arenas, a fourth-year player who played his first three seasons with Kansas City, where he was drafted by Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli, the former Chiefs’ GM.
All three players have worked in with the first team during OTAs.
"I think that we’re very competitive," Smith said of the position. McClain "is returning. Josh Wilson has played the nickel. He’s been getting reps for us in that capacity, as well as Javier Arenas. I think there’s three guys that have experience and have played that position in the game. It will be fun to watch them compete in the rest of our OTAs and through training camp."
Last year’s top picks, first-round pick Desmond Trufant and second-round pick Robert Alford, appear to have the starting left and right cornerback jobs locked down. Alford, who played mostly left corner last season behind veteran Asante Samuel, has switched sides with Trufant moving left.
"I love both sides," Alford said. "Me and Desmond, we’re always switching every day. We’re really just getting familiar with both sides because you never know, somebody will go down, they might need you on the left side or the right side. It’s pretty much you having to get used to playing both ways."