As we count down the days to training camp, Around the League will examine one player from every team set for a breakout campaign in 2012. Next up: the Atlanta Falcons.
Sean Weatherspoon is the guy who goes the craziest when his teammate makes a good play. He's the guy who pleads for an official to call a safety before it happens, the guy who jumps into a scrum late because he wants to be part of the action. He is always moving, always looking for action. He is a joy to watch.
None of this makes the third-year Falcons linebacker a great player. His speed, smarts and versatility take care of that. When you combine Weatherspoon's natural ability with his effort and attitude, you have a potential difference-maker. You get a leader.
I'm uncomfortable making Weatherspoon my "Making the Leap" pick for the Falcons, because he's already made a sizable jump. He's the leader of this Falcons defense. (Why do you think they let Curtis Lofton walk?) Weatherspoon is already one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in football. He easily could have made the Pro Bowl last year, but he's not a big enough name yet.
He's listed here because he deserves more attention. Those Pro Bowl nods are often built on reputations gained one or two years after a player truly earns recognition. I'm doing my tiny part to elevate Weatherspoon's reputation now.
Weatherspoon is, in many ways, the prototypical modern player for his position. He covers tight ends -- like he did with the New York Giants' Jake Ballard in the playoffs -- with ease. He breaks on passes before they are thrown. He can rush the passer when asked. He instinctively avoids blocks and finds the football. He's a linebacker in a passing league. His level of effort is unquestioned.
There is no doubt Weatherspoon's aggressiveness sometimes causes problems when he over-pursues. He could be stronger in short-yardage situation.
But these are quibbles. Entering his third year, playing for a creative defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan, Weatherspoon is on his way to being one of the best overall linebackers in football.