Sean Weatherspoon, considered the Falcons’ top defender, missed most of last season with a foot injury, and now the star linebacker is out for the entire 2014-15 season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. (Reuters)
FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who left the field clutching onto wide receiver Julio Jones, ruptured his Achilles tendon Tuesday while working out with the training staff.
He will be lost for the coming season.
“Sean had been working extremely hard to get back on the field, but regrettably he will miss the entire 2014 season,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “He will have a (surgery) done in the near future, and we expect him to make a full recovery.”
After the surgery, Weatherspoon faces a long recovery period.
“For him to go back to being an inside linebacker, he’s going to be out closer to four or five months, but once he’s healed, he has to rehab again,” said Dr. Phillip Kwong, foot and ankle surgeon at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles.
The rehab from an Achilles tendon injury is arduous.
“He’s going to be very weak with his push-off,” Kwong said. “He’s not going to have the strength to have explosive movements pushing off. That’s mainly it. The weakness of the calf muscle doesn’t give you good control of your knee and your ankle. That’s going to limit his ability to push-off, run and change direction.”
It’s not believed to be a career-ending injury.
“It doesn’t have to be career-ending,” Kwong said. “If they can repair it properly and rehab him properly so that he has good movement on his ankle up-and-down and side-to-side, then he (regains) good strength, he can come back.”
Weatherspoon, the Falcons’ first-round pick in the pick in the 2010 draft (19th overall), was headed into a contract season. He was considered the team’s top defender.
Weatherspoon, 26, was coming off a tough campaign in 2013. The 6-foot, 1-inch and 241-pound linebacker, spent part of the season on injured reserve with a foot injury before making it back, only to exit again with a knee injury.
In last season’s preseason ranking of the team, Weatherspoon was considered the sixth-best player on the team behind quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez, wide receiver Roddy White, cornerback Asante Samuel and Jones.
In 2012, Weatherspoon, who ranked second on the team with 114 tackles last season, had offseason arthroscopic knee surgery that caused him to miss OTAs. He returned in time to fully participate in the team’s minicamp last June.
During the 2013 season, he suffered a foot injury in the second game of the season against St. Louis.
He was placed on the injured reserve-designation to return list and missed the next seven games. He returned against Tampa Bay and played the next five games before not playing in the final two games of the season.
He finished last season with 43 tackles and one interception.
In 2011, Weatherspoon was named a second-team All-Pro selection as a 4-3 outside linebacker by Pro Football Focus.
Weatherspoon’s contract expires after next season. He hoped to turn in a big season and land a big-time contract.
“This year means everything for me,” Weatherspoon said in April. “I think time will tell if I will be part of this organization for a few years or (2014) could be my last. I am looking forward to going out there and focusing on doing my job one play at a time. I just pray for a clean bill of health, and I know everything will work out in my favor.”
In April, Weatherspoon, who had an knee injury that is believed to have required surgery, said that he hadn’t been cleared for team workouts more than four months after suffering a knee injury.
“I have been working nonstop with the training staff about four or five days a week doing whatever I can do to get my body feeling good so I can get back to where I’m feeling at top (speed),” Weatherspoon said. “I would say I’m feeling about 80 percent right now. I’m working hard and looking forward to getting back to 100 percent. I really don’t know my schedule.”
Weatherspoon left Atlanta’s 27-26 victory against the Redskins on Dec. 15 and didn’t play in the final two games. Weatherspoon also missed seven games with a foot injury last season.
Weatherspoon has struggled with injuries during his career and now faces another offseason with questions about whether if he’ll be able to continue his once-promising NFL career. He started all 16 games just once over his career back in 2011.
Now, all three of the starting linebackers in the NFC championship game against San Francisco after the 2012 season are out of the lineup. Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas lost their starting jobs last season and Nicholas was released over the offseason.
The Falcons, who played most of last season with Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, Weatherspoon and Dent in the top spots, have been revamping the unit. They drafted four linebackers in the draft.
Worrilow and Bartu were undrafted rookies last season. Worrilow led the team in tackles with 137 and Bartu was third on the team with 96.
“The two guys who ended up playing a bunch of games and snaps for us last year, have improved and matured, Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu,” Smith said. “If you would have told me this time last year that those two guys, one was going to be our leading tackler and the other was going to play over 70 percent of the snaps, I would have looked at you and said ‘I don’t think so.’ They are much more mature. We went through some growing pains with them last year and that is going to pay some dividends going forward.”
The Falcons drafted Prince Shemba in the fourth round (139th overall), Marquis Spruill in the fifth-round (168th overall), Yawin Smallwood and Tyler Starr in the seventh-round, 253rd and 255th overall.
“I really like the rookie class that we brought in,” Smith said. “I think that there are three guys that if they don’t help us on defense right away, they are going to be able to help us on special teams.”