FLOWERY BRANCH — Even after signing Dunta Robinson, the Atlanta Falcons were still focused on defense in the NFL draft.
The Falcons selected Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon with the 19th overall pick Thursday night and believe he’ll make an immediate impact on a unit that was ravaged by injuries, didn’t get much pressure on the quarterback, and gave up a huge amount of passing yards.
“We were very excited to have the opportunity to take an outside linebacker who’s going to ramp up our speed, our enthusiasm, our athleticism,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “In our minds, this guy is going to be a four-down player for us.”
Weatherspoon was thrilled, too.
“I’m a falcon!!!” he tweeted before his selection was even announced.
The Falcons also coveted Florida offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey, but he was taken one pick earlier by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan, another player who would’ve filled a major need, was taken 16th by the Tennessee Titans.
Dimitroff insisted the Falcons got the guy they had targeted all along. From talks with the Steelers, he knew they were targeting one player in particular and correctly surmised it was Pouncey. When the Eagles selected Michigan’s Brandon Graham, it started a run on defensive ends that scooped up South Florida’s Jason Pierre-Paul (No. 15 to the Giants) and Morgan.
There was little drama left when Atlanta went on the clock.
“He’s a guy who can match up and play the tight end as well as play the box,” coach Mike Smith said. “In our division, we’re going to face some very athletic tight ends. That’s something, as we went through the process, we wanted to have an opportunity to counteract that. That position is crucial for our defense.”
The 6-foot-1, 239-pound Weatherspoon should step up the production at either of the outside linebacker positions, which were manned last season by Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson, who will be 34 at the start of next season.
“If (Pouncey) had been sitting there at the same time as Sean,” Dimitroff said, “we still would’ve picked Sean.”
A second-team All-American as a senior, Weatherspoon had 4.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for losses and 111 tackles overall. He put up even more impressive numbers as a junior — 155 tackles, 18.5 stops behind the line and five sacks. He led the Tigers in tackles his last three seasons and finished 10th in Big 12 Conference history with 413 career stops.
Weatherspoon bulked up to 251 pounds last year to play one of the inside linebacker spots in Missouri’s 3-4 defense. He’s back down to 239 pounds, which the Falcons feel is his ideal weight.
The Falcons have addressed two defensive holes during the offseason, also signing free agent cornerback Robinson to a six-year, $57 million contract after ranking 28th in the league in passing yards allowed.
Weatherspoon has already envisioned settling in beside middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and rejoining a former Missouri teammate, safety William Moore, a second-round pick of the Falcons a year ago who never got on the field because of injuries.
“Curtis is a real up and comer,” Weatherspoon said. “I look forward to playing beside him and making some noise.”
Weatherspoon got a chance to hook up again with Moore during a pre-draft meeting with the Falcons.
“I told him, ‘We’re going to feed off each other. We’re going to be poppin’ down there,’” Weatherspoon said. “He’s going to be able to help me with so many things — the location, the playbook. He’s a guy I can definitely lean on.”
In addition to Moore coming back, the Falcons also are counting on the return of last year’s first-round pick, defensive tackle Peria Jerry. He sustained a season-ending injury in the second game of his rookie year.
The draft resumes Friday night with the second and third rounds. The final four rounds are Saturday.
The Falcons don’t have a pick in the second round, giving it up in last year’s deal for tight end Tony Gonzalez. But Dimitroff had already been talking with other GMs about a deal to move up in what’s considered an extremely deep draft.
Atlanta has two third-rounders, as well as a pair of picks in the fifth and sixth rounds.
“We are getting calls,” Dimitroff said. “We got some calls prior to the draft. There’s still an opportunity, possibly, to move up. It’s just a matter of determining whether it’s worth the movement. It would be quite rich to move up to the middle to back third” of the second round.