- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan didn't go out of his way to criticize his inside linebackers, but Nolan surely sounded far from satisfied with what he has to work with right now.
Nolan was asked how comfortable he was with Bartu.
"Am I comfortable with Joplo being in the first group with Paul? We have to be," Nolan said. "They're our two starters. Comfortable as you can get. It's not Ray Lewis. I'd be really comfortable with Ray.
"The two starters, those two guys are getting better. Jop's first year in there. He's been outside before and he never played off the line of scrimmage. He, again, continues to get better, but he's definitely further along than he was last year as a rookie because he played for us a good bit. But he hasn't mastered that position because it's kind of new to him. Some of the little technical things, some of the eyes, what you look at, things like that."
On the flip side, Nolan gushed over the rookie Shembo. The fourth-round pick made the switch from outside linebacker to inside.
"I think Shembo's been a pleasant surprise," Nolan said. "He's a position-change guy from college, so he's not totally natural where he's playing right now. But he's a 100 percent willing-type of guy. He didn't look at the position as if, 'Hey, if it didn't work, I'd go back outside.' And some guys do that, so they always have a written excuse to not do well.
"He takes it very seriously. He's a real intense guy on the field. It's hard to break him away to get his attention on things because he's so intense. Works extremely hard. He's tough. And he's probably got the best physical stature to play the position than anybody we've got even on the roster. He's 258 pounds and runs well. Again, he's got to become accustomed to the position. I don't think anything is going to happen right away, but I do believe that he's just going to continually get better. And he's wearing a lot of hats. We're playing him at both the inside linebacker positions and only because he can handle it mentally."
The linebackers might still be a work in progress, but they'll be aided by the added bulk up front with defensive end Tyson Jackson, nose tackle Paul Soliai, and rookie Ra'Shede Hageman. The havoc expected to be created by the defensive linemen will free up the linebackers to make plays.
The team is definitely concerned about not having more of a veteran presence at inside linebacker. Remember, vocal leader Sean Weatherspoon was lost for the season with an Achilles tear.