The Atlanta Falcons lost one of its defensive leaders when Sean Witherspoon went down this week with an Achilles injury. Ironically, the mishap occurred while Witherspoon was working with trainers, rehabbing his knee from an injury suffered last season. He will miss the entire 2014 season:
“During Sean’s run today with our medical staff, he suffered an injury,” head coach Mike Smith said.
“Sean had been working extremely hard to get back on the field, but regrettably he will miss the entire 2014 season. He will have a procedure done in the near future and we expect him to make a full recovery.”
A first-round pick out of Missouri in 2010, Witherspoon has only played 16 games once in his career, totaling 80 tackles and four sacks during the 2011 season. Witherspoon is entering the final year of his contract and may not be seen as a secure, long-term investment.
Injuries devastated the Falcons last year as they finished the season with 11 players on injured reserve. Inexperienced depth in plenty of key areas left the Falcons with a 4-12 record, just one year removed from the NFC Championship Game. But last year was last year and the team must find a way to move on without Witherspoon. The Falcons drafted four linebackers in this year’s draft, so while there is seemingly depth at the position, it comes in the form of untested rookies.
One potential replacement is fourth-round pick Prince Shembo out of Notre Dame. At 6’1”, 253 pounds, Shembo is a strong run defender and a good tackler. He has off-field concerns, though, and could be seen as more of a developmental project.
Fifth-round pick OLB Marquis Spruill was a four-year starter at Syracuse and recorded 12.5 sacks in his college career, but will most likely fit in as a special teams player.
Rounding out the linebacker draft class are Seventh-round pick Yawin Smallwood from Connecticut and seventh-rounder Tyler Starr out of South Dakota. Superstars rarely emerge from the final round of the draft, but both players have potential to contribute in substitutional situations.
The Falcons roster includes a handful of veterans at the linebacker position who are poised for a breakout season, including second-year players Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Worrilow posted a surprising rookie performance last year, racking up 127 tackles and projects to be an every-down player in 2014. Bartu recorded 3.5 sacks last season and will be looking to improve on that number.
The Falcons have about three months before the start of the season to address their needs at the linebacker position, which could come in the form of a veteran signing or developing the young talent available within their organization. Either way, it will be difficult to replace a player like Witherspoon.
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