Falcons linebacker Joplo Bartu tackles Bengals tight end Richard Quinn during this year’s preseason opener. Bartu, an undrafted free agent from Texas State, is moving his way up the depth chart. (Reuters News Service)
ATLANTA — Given that he has a name (and a memorable one at that), it would be wrong to call Joplo Bartu a no-name. But even he concedes that he arrived at the Atlanta Falcons’ training camp the bearer of a low profile. That, however, is changing.
The Falcons like Bartu, an undrafted free agent from Texas State. He’s an outside linebacker on a team in search of a counterweight to the estimable Sean Weatherspoon, and nothing Bartu has done suggests that he’s out of his depth. He’ll probably make the team, which is a big deal for any undrafted free agent, and there’s a chance he’ll show up on third downs this fall.
“I’m taking it day by day,” Bartu said of his job prospects. “I want to put my best effort forward. I want to make an impression.”
The Falcons eyed Bartu as a possible sixth-round pick in the April draft. Regional scout Shepley Heard noted his presence at the top of the Texas State weight room boards a couple of years back. (“Probably in the vertical jump and power clean,” Bartu guessed.) A pedestrian 40 time of 4.85 pushed him into the ranks of the UFA’s. He took the Falcons’ free-agent offer over all others for a high-minded reason.
“Of course I had high hopes of being drafted, maybe in the fifth or sixth round,” Bartu said. “But then I started getting calls from teams saying, ‘The way the draft is working out, we’d like to have you as a free agent.’ Some of those teams had said they might draft me. I signed with the Falcons because they never said they’d draft me.”
Asked about that 4.85, Bartu smiled and shook his head. “I’m definitely not a good 40 runner. I’m all about football speed. Quickness, I’m there. A 40, I’m not there.”
Bartu grew up in Prairie View, Texas, and played high school football in Waller. He had scholarship offers from a few BCS programs and would have signed with Northwestern if not for a powerful family tie: His brother Wellington Deshield was a defensive end at Texas State, which is located in San Marcos, roughly equidistant between Austin and San Antonio. He redshirted his first season as a Bobcat. By the time he finished his career, he was a wreaker of football havoc.
The first half of his senior season, Bartu was stationed at defensive end. Moved back to linebacker, he essentially authored a highlight video, one for which his Twitter feed offers a convenient link. He had 62 tackles in his final four collegiate games. He had four sacks against New Mexico State.
At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Bartu looks the way an outside linebacker should. Still, it’s his ability to drop in coverage that has the Falcons intrigued. You’ll recall that this team showed an uncanny inability to cover tight ends last season. In each of their four losses, a tight end caught passes for at least 55 yards — the Saints’ Jimmy Graham and the 49ers’ Vernon Davis had huge games — and the hairbreadth playoff victory over Seattle was nearly an excruciating loss in large part because Zach Miller caught eight passes for 142 yards.
It would be wrong to say that incumbent strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas was at fault on every catch. It would not be wrong to suggest that the Falcons could stand an upgrade at “SAM,” as the argot has it. Linebacker was the one position of need the Falcons didn’t address in the draft. They might have found one via other means.
“I definitely think I have the football speed to cover tight ends,” Bartu said, and he conceded that he has been complimented a few times for his work. Then, trying not to let himself get carried away: “Of course, everybody gets complimented here.”
The man from Texas didn’t come to Atlanta to see the sights. The only time he has spent downtown came during the Falcons’ exhibition opener last week. “I’ve just been around Flowery Branch,” he said. “It’s a nice rural area.”
His mother, who named him Joplo after a Liberian warrior, watched the game on television. (“The name stands for strength,” Bartu said.) She’s back in Texas undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. “She told me she was pretty proud of me,” Bartu said, and he was actually pretty proud of himself. Not every undrafted free agent even makes it to preseason. But there he was and here he remains.
He’s still skittish about his chances to make the team — any UFA would be — but he’s starting to feel as if he might just belong in the high-falutin’ NFL. And you can’t say he didn’t envision it. Back in college, he chose @WhoIsJoplo as his Twitter handle.
With every practice, he’s in the process of telling us.