Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has gotten a ton of talk during this offseason based on the numbers he put up in 13 games as a rookie. If there's a player that's next on the most-talked-about list, it's Sean Weatherspoon.
Carried by a second year in 2011 that saw the outside linebacker rank near the top of most significant stats for 4-3 linebackers, Weatherspoon is being called upon to be the team's defensive leader in 2012 and continue to take a step forward. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan recently said Weatherspoon can continue to get better, but also that he's a player they're counting on to help them win games.
In NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal's "Making The Leap" series, he identified Weatherspoon as the player on the Falcons ready to take the next step into the elite at his position.
Rosenthal describes the Weatherspoon so many Falcons fans and observers are already familiar with: always on the move, talkative and excited on the field and an emerging leader. He explains that his placement of Weatherspoon for the Falcons is less about identifying a player on the rise and more about highlighting a player he believes is already Pro Bowl caliber.
"Weatherspoon is, in many ways, the prototypical modern player for his position," Rosenthal wrote. "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."
Rosenthal says Weatherspoon's combination of talent, effort and attitude make him a difference maker and a leader. It's exactly the kind of hopes the Falcons and their defense have for Weatherspoon. Many believed Weatherspoon was snubbed for the Pro Bowl last season, but Rosenthal doesn't think it will happen again.
Weatherspoon was recently also on an NFC South list, ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas' on the next defensive superstar from the NFC South.
Yasinskas lists a number of young players from the division on his list and he says Weatherspoon is a player has the potential to be the kind of elite linebacker to carry a defense.
"New coordinator Mike Nolan apparently wants to build his defense around Weatherspoon," Yasinskas wrote. "That might not be a bad idea. The great Tampa Bay defenses were built around Brooks, not the guy in the middle. Of course, that concept only works if Weatherspoon turns out to be the next Brooks."
It all remains to be seen whether Weatherspoon will receive the Pro Bowl honor in 2012, but the Falcons are certainly putting him in a position to allow him to play like a Pro Bowler for many years to come.