Last September, when the Falcons were in only the early stages of what would become a calamitous string of injuries, I offered my, "Can't Afford To Lose" top 10 list of players. The list: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Steven Jackson on offense; Sean Weatherspoon, Osi Umenyiora, William Moore, Jonathan Babineaux and Asante Samuel on defense. (Looking back, I don't know if I overrated the aging Samuel before last season or he just couldn't get healthy.)
This year's list wouldn't change much, which means the Falcons just took a big hit -- and they didn't even make it to training camp this time.
Weatherspoon is out. Again. The starting linebacker, who missed nine games in 2013 with foot and knee injuries and never really made an impact, suffered a torn Achilles while working with team trainers in OTAs and is out for the season.
Falcons coach Mike Smith released a statement Tuesday night saying, "During Sean’s run today with our medical staff, he suffered an injury. We sent Sean to the doctor for some additional testing and evaluation and unfortunately the results showed that he ruptured his Achilles tendon. 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."
Actually, there is no guarantee of that. A ruptured Achilles can be career-threatening for any athlete. The Falcons lost linebacker-end Kroy Biermann last season to the same injury. It remains to be seen how effective Biermann will be this year, although his return just became that much more crucial.
Weatherspoon has not played up to expectations since the Falcons drafted him in the first round (19th overall) in 2010. But he is one of the defense's better players, plays in all situations and figured to be a key figure in the team's increased use of the 3-4 alignment.
Where does general manager Thomas Dimitroff go from here? As I wrote in a column on MyAJC.com, linked here , Dimitroff already faced a pretty significant challenge trying to get this team to the next level. The focus in free agency and the draft was getting bigger and more physical on the offensive and defensive lines.
The linebacking corps was suspect even with Weatherspoon. It includes Biermann, Paul Worrilow, Akeem Dent and Joplo Bartu and Prince Shembo (a fourth-round pick). Umenyiora, an end in the 4-3, projects as a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the 3-4, but we'll know more in training camp.
One possible name to think about: James Harrison. The former Pittsburgh Steeler certainly would bring an element of toughness to the team, but he's 36 years old and it might be telling that Cincinnati chose not to sign him after having him on the roster last season. Harrison played 15 games (10 starts) for the Bengals, registering two sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.
Truth is, Dimitroff isn't going to find a great player on the street now. At this point, he'll either have to try to make a trade or wait until the team gets to training camp, evaluate the players and go from there. But this injury hurts an already questionable defense.