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Falcons turn to experienced youth sans Witherspoon

FLOWERY BRANCH — Late last season, when it became apparent the campaign was slipping away, the Atlanta Falcons made a point to give their younger players more action.

Now, with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, that move may pay dividends. Weatherspoon will require surgery and miss all of the 2014 season.

“During Sean’s run today with our medical staff, he suffered an injury,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. “We sent Sean to the doctor for some additional testing and evaluation and unfortunately the results showed that he ruptured his Achilles tendon.

The emotional leader of the Falcons’ defense, Weatherspoon was limited to seven games last season. He missed the first seven games with a foot injury, and then the final two weeks with a right knee injury that he has been rehabbing this offseason.

“Sean had been working extremely hard to get back on the field, but regrettably he will miss the entire 2014 season,” Smith said. “He will have a (surgery) done in the near future, and we expect him to make a full recovery.”

Now, all three linebackers who started for the Falcons in the NFC championship game against San Francisco in the 2012 post season are out of the lineup. Akeem Dent lost his job during last season and Stephen Nicholas was released during the offseason.

The Falcons played most of last season with Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, Weatherspoon and Dent in the top spots. But the Falcons drafted four linebackers in the draft.

Worrilow and Bartu, were undrafted rookies last season. Worrilow led the team in tackles with 137 and Bartu was third on the team with 96.

“The two guys who ended up playing a bunch of games and snaps for us last year, have improved and matured, Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu,” Smith said. “They are maturing. We went through some growing pains with them last year and that is going to pay some dividends going forward.”

In this year’s draft, the Falcons took Prince Shembo in the fourth round (139th overall), Marquis Spruill in the fifth-round (168th overall), Yawin Smallwood and Tyler Starr in the seventh-round, 253rd and 255th overall.

“I really like the rookie class that we brought in,” Smith said. “I think that there are three guys that if they don’t help us on defense right away, they are going to be able to help us on special teams.”

Bartu will be the leading candidate to replace Weatherspoon again this season. Undrafted out of Texas State in 2013, he earned snaps in the team’s nickel defense with his cover skills during training camp. With Weatherspoon opening the season on injured reserve, Bartu continued to see increased playing time and went on to finish his rookie season with 85 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

Another potential option is Shembo from Notre Dame. He might be a good fit at the left outside linebacker spot. He is not a dynamic athlete and was the 19th-ranked outside linebacker in the 2014 class by NFLDraftScout.com. But he also played end for the Irish, can rush the passer and posted a good 40-yard dash time of 4.67 seconds.