Just when the Falcons got one of their starting linebackers back on the field another one went down with an injury.
Outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas suffered what appeared to be a leg injury early in practice Saturday. After initially receiving treatment on the sideline Nicholas went into the team’s training facility and didn’t return.
Coach Mike Smith, speaking to reporters after practice, said he didn’t immediately have an update on Nicholas’ injury.
The other starter at outside linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, participated in a full practice Saturday for the first time since dislocating the middle finger on his left hand Aug. 5. Weatherspoon is wearing a splint on the finger, but otherwise has no limitations.
“The energy that he brings is evident,” Smith said. “I think he needs to do some conditioning simply because he hasn’t practiced for a couple weeks. But he looks great.”
A serious injury to a starting linebacker would drastically thin the depth. Nicholas, Weatherspoon and middle linebacker Akeem Dent are the only veterans among what figures to be a final group of five or six.
Robert James played only seven snaps from scrimmage in 2012, and Pat Schiller was on the practice squad. The Falcons didn’t draft a linebacker in April and signed four college free agents, with Paul Worrilow and Joplu Bartu emerging as the standouts among the rookies.
Bartu took Nicholas’ place alongside Weatherspoon in the nickel defense during practice Saturday. Worrilow was on the second team with Dent.
“They are exceptional,” Weatherspoon said of Worrilow and Bartu. “These two, it seems like they’ve played the type of ball we play before in their life. They’ve adjusted well, and they play hard.”
White’s all right: Smith said wide receiver Roddy White will be ready to play in the regular-season opener Sept. 8 at New Orleans. White suffered what the team said is a minor ankle sprain Thursday at Baltimore and wasn’t at practice Saturday. White won’t play Saturday at Tennessee and, like all of the starters, will sit out the final exhibition game Aug. 29 against Jacksonville.
White, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, has started 128 consecutive regular-season games.
Numbers game: Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora apparently has grown tired of wearing No. 90 and is looking to switch to No. 50. That number currently belongs to Schiller.
The protocol: Umenyiora is a 10-year veteran, Schiller has just one season, and so Umenyiora will get No. 50 if he wants it and offers proper compensation. Schiller didn’t want to discuss the details of any negotiations, but he confirmed that there might be a deal.
“It was brought to my attention by him the other day so we’ve just kind of going back and forth joking about it,” Schiller said. “He’s the veteran; I’m the young buck. So kind of whatever he says I’ve kind of got to follow. We will see what happens, but nothing is official yet.”
Umenyiora announced his intentions with a post to his Twitter account Friday: “I will be changing my number this week. I want a number in the 50’s. any suggestions people???”
Umenyiora ruled out No. 56 because it belongs to Weatherspoon, a fellow vet. He added that Jessie Tuggle’s No. 58 is “retired,” which isn’t technically true because the franchise doesn’t retire numbers, but Tuggle is in the team’s Ring of Honor.
Umenyiora posted an update Saturday afternoon: “No. 50 was the most popular answer. So No. 50 it is.”
Back in action: Smith said running back Jason Snelling, linebacker Robert James and fullback Bradie Ewing are expected to return from injuries this week and play in the game Saturday. Snelling is scheduled to practice Sunday, and James and Ewing are set to return Tuesday (the Falcons are off Monday).
Doing fine: Julio Jones played Thursday after sitting out the first exhibition game with tightness in his hamstrings. He also pulled up limping a bit after running a route in practice Tuesday.
But Jones said he had no problems during or after the game. He participated in practice Saturday.
“I felt great,” he said. “I think I scratched my arm, that’s about it. Overall, I think me and Matt (Ryan) connected very well out there.”
Jones had three catches for 55 yards and a touchdown against the Ravens.