The loss of Sean Weatherspoon for the season with an Achilles’ tendon injury, as unfortunate as it was for the Atlanta Falcons, has provided a huge opportunity for rookie linebacker Prince Shembo.
A fourth-round pick out of Notre Dame, Shembo has been moved to inside linebacker in Atlanta after rushing from the edge in South Bend. When the Falcons converted Shembo inside, they did so with the intent of improving his chances of contributing down the road. Instead, Shembo will compete for starting snaps as a rookie.
Don’t think he’ll be handed anything, though, or that he’s even the favorite to start alongside Paul Worrilow come Week 1. With 13 games of starting experience on his resume, Joplo Bartu is undoubtedly the front runner to take Weatherspoon’s spot. Bartu excelled defending the run in 2013, but struggled in coverage, conceding 272 receiving yards and two touchdowns to his assignments.
With a strong training camp and preseason, Shembo is capable of stealing snaps from Bartu, if not surpassing him on the depth chart. Working in Shembo’s favor is ideal toughness and sound tackling ability. The biggest knock on his game entering the draft was an inability to fluidly bend the edge as a pass rusher. Inside, he won’t be required to tight rope around the tackle, though. He projects as an effective blitzer who possesses the physicality to shed blocks and stuff the run.
However, Shembo is a big question mark in coverage. Considering Bartu’s most significant shortcomings were in coverage last season, Shembo may need to prove he can be an upgrade in that area to earn the nod. Regardless, don’t expect Shembo to be relegated to special teams duties like many Day 3 selections.
The Falcons need inside linebacker help badly enough to believe Shembo will be thrown into the fire as a rookie. But he’ll still need to put together an impressive camp to secure anything.
Cody Strahm is an NFL Senior Writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter.