Joplo Bartu has chance to make mark
June, 17, 2014
By Vaughn McClure | ESPN.com
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe Atlanta Falcons are expecting linebacker Joplo Bartu to take a step forward this season.Atlanta Falcons second-year linebacker Joplo Bartu couldn't care less about hearing his name mentioned as the best possible replacement for injured teammate Sean Weatherspoon, who was lost for the 2014 season with an Achilles tear.
Bartu simply wants to improve every aspect of his game rather than try to measure up to Weatherspoon. His growth will continue this week as the Falcons begin their three-day mandatory minicamp on Tuesday afternoon.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said the team continues to look around for any possible veteran help to add depth to the linebacker position. The Falcons worked out veteran Tim Dobbins and Nick Barnett after Weatherspoon suffered his Achilles tear while rehabbing from a knee injury. Jonathan Vilma also is on the radar, but the Falcons haven't signed anyone just yet.
Bartu and Paul Worrilow have been the inside linebacker combination this offseason without Weatherspoon as the Falcons have moved to a 3-4 base defensive scheme. Rookies Prince Shembo and Marquis Spruill also are in the mix inside.
"I'm just here to do my job," Bartu said over the weekend. "I don't have any control over what the front office or whatever the coaches decide. I'm here to do my job and do it to the best to my ability.
"There are some improvements that I could make. I'm never satisfied. You can never be satisfied in this league. I just feel like there are different things I could work on and I can improve on the things that I'm really good at."
Last year as an undrafted rookie, Bartu started 13 of 16 games while playing outside linebacker in more of a 4-3 scheme. He finished third on the team with 85 tackles and also recorded 3.5 sacks while playing 74 percent of the defensive snaps, second most among the linebackers behind Worrilow (74.1 percent).
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan spoke in general terms about Bartu following organized team activities earlier this month, before Weatherspoon went down with the injury.
"Joplo played linebacker on the line of scrimmage last year that was most like what he had done in college," Nolan said after OTAs on June 4. "Not expecting him to contribute so soon, that was our way to allow him to mature. He is now aligned at inside linebacker off the line of scrimmage about 4 yards or so. It is new to him but it is his best position as an NFL player. It fits everything about him. He's done OK so far."
But Bartu will, of course, have to pick up the pace if he plans to fill Weatherspoon's shoes. How Bartu responds to the transition when the Falcons finally put on the pads should be telling.
Worrilow, also undrafted last season, has plenty of faith in his fellow linebacker.
"Jop's a great player," Worrilow said. "In OTAs, it's been me and Jop out there with the first team leading things as a linebacker group. It shouldn't be a shock for him to step in there and play well. He played super well last year. His ability to cover tight ends is unmatched. I watch him and he's just really good. I expect him to come in and play really well.
"Spoon is still going to be around in our meeting room. He's still going to be the leader in our room. Now on the field, that's where I've got to kind of take the reins on that."
Bartu wants to step forward as well.
"I feel like I need to work on my vision a little bit," Bartu said. "I just have to calm down and play a little bit slower. When you first come into the league, everything seems like it's moving really fast. Just calm down and look at it and use your vision, peripherals and everything."
Bartu also plans to put to good use the lessons learned from Weatherspoon.
"Spoon taught me so much, just different techniques and different tricks," Bartu said. "I'm just taking those in.
"It was tough to see Spoon go down because he's been working so hard this entire offseason just to get back out there. Even when he wasn't out there with us, he was still encouraging us. He's just a great and awesome leader. I let him know that he was in my prayers, and he just told me to keep my head up and keep working."
Bartu's hard work should pay off come the start of the regular season.