Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

FLOWERY BRANCH -- Sean Weatherspoon doesn't just want to be an indispensable player for the Atlanta Falcons.

He wants to become an elite NFL linebacker -- but he needs to stay healthy.

"I want to play every snap," Weatherspoon said Tuesday afternoon. "I'm not going to lie about that. I'm just out here trying to work hard and accomplish my goals. Help the team. Be smart."

As the No. 19 overall draft pick of 2010, Weatherspoon appeared to be on track in his first few months with the Falcons, earning a starting job at strongside linebacker, recording his first career sack in Week 2 and contributing regularly on special teams.

But ankle and knee injuries caused him to miss five games and parts of two others before he returned for a Week 11 win at St. Louis.

"It took away my burst a little bit, but I came back with and did whatever I could to help the squad," Weatherspoon said. "It was a pretty good year for us. We won 13 games in the regular season, so you can't get upset about that, but we definitely want to do better this year, and I want to be better as well."

During the NFL lockout, Weatherspoon followed the lead of middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, Atlanta's defensive captain, and veteran linebackers Mike Peterson and Coy Wire in participating regularly in conditioning workouts and in 7-on-7 field sessions near the Falcons' practice complex.

The time away from coaches wasn't easy for Weatherspoon, who had hoped to spend a few hours a week watching film and working on the field with position coach Glenn Pires, but leaning on his teammates helped, too.

"I kind of learned to deal with being away from a regular routine during all that time I was out with an injury," Weatherspoon said. "It was tough, but coach Pires did a good job last year of keeping me right beside him in the meeting room. Even when I wasn't playing, I was on the game plan as if I could've been out there playing, so that's one thing I tried to do -- stay on top of the classroom work. That definitely helps because I feel a little more comfortable in our system."

It was no secret that Weatherspoon wasn't the same after twisting his ankle during a Week 3 overtime victory at New Orleans. He missed the next game, a home win over San Francisco, but in a Week 5 victory at Cleveland, an opponent's helmet crashed into his knee.

Weatherspoon returned for the final eight games -- making just one start -- but head coach Mike Smith liked what he saw Tuesday from the 23-year-old as Atlanta worked on specific situations like two-minute, red zone, third down and blitz.

"He's got a much better comfort level in terms of what we're trying to do," Smith said. "He missed little bit of time last year, but he's heard this now -- it'll be his fourth time with the install. He heard it last year three times as a rookie, and now this is his fourth time. Normally it would've been his sixth, but you see the comfort level and you see the athleticism. He's making advances every time we come out on the field."

If Weatherspoon stays healthy, the Falcons could have the coverage speed that their linebacker corps lacked last year as the season wore on. Former Georgia standout Akeem Dent, a third-round draft pick, brings fresh legs to complement the experience of Lofton, Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson, but Weatherspoon has the prototypical size and quickness that NFL teams covet at his position.

"The No. 1 thing is we just want him to stay healthy and then progress in his mind," Lofton said. "He has everything to be a great linebacker, but you've got to bring it from the practice field to the game field. I think he's going to do that this year."