FLOWERY BRANCH — Sean Weatherspoon returned to Atlanta Falcons practice on Monday after sitting out a week because of a left finger injury.
That is good news for a defense that can’t afford to be without him very long.
Weatherspoon, the No. 19 pick in the 2010 draft, is Atlanta’s lone elite linebacker. He plays every snap unless he is injured.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said Weatherspoon likely won’t make his preseason debut until next week
Weatherspoon left practice on Aug. 5 with a dislocated left finger that had an open wound. He was limited in participation on Monday with two fingers taped heavily together under a protective glove.
The team didn’t make Weatherspoon available to speak with reporters.
“We didn’t want him to have any contact quite yet, but we wanted to get him back out and let him work through drills,” Smith said Monday night. “He will progress each day a little bit more.”
Without Weatherspoon, Atlanta’s linebacker corps might rank among the NFL’s least effective. Only Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas have substantial game experience.
Robert James has been almost exclusively a special teams player, but the rest of the depth chart consists of Pat Schiller, Nick Clancy, Joplo Bartu, Brian Banks and Paul Worrilow — none of whom has played in an NFL game.
Competition is wide open, and Smith indicated that reserves who didn’t get first- and second-quarter snaps last week could have some chances when Atlanta (0-1 preseason) visits Baltimore (1-0) on Thursday.
“Often times, the first time out, they’re playing in the third and fourth quarter,” Smith said. “We’d surely like to see some of these guys compete against some of the front-line players that will be in playing in (the regular season).”
General manager Thomas Dimitroff upgraded the defense at several positions during the offseason, signing defensive end Osi Umenyiora as a free agent and using first- and second-round draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
Strong safety William Moore, a late addition to the Pro Bowl, returned with a new contract, and Dimitroff drafted defensive ends Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Moponga in the fourth and fifth round. He used seventh-round picks on safeties Kemal Ishmael and Zeke Motta.
No team can fortify its roster with new additions in the offseason, and the Falcons already had cleared salary-cap space by releasing running back Michael Turner, defensive end John Abraham, cornerback Dunta Robinson and right tackle Tyson Clabo.
They didn’t spend too lavishly to sign Gonzalez, Umenyiora and running back Steven Jackson, the NFL’s active leading rusher. Dimitroff also signed Matt Ryan to a new contract, but that nine-figure deal doesn’t kick in until next season.
The strength of Atlanta’s defense last season was making enough big plays to finish fifth in scoring, but the Falcons ranked 21st against the run and were much worse against running quarterbacks.
San Francisco’s Colin Kapernick, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Carolina’s Cam Newton scored four rushing touchdowns and averaged 10.5 yards a carry on 27 attempts.
Regardless, unless they add an experienced linebacker after NFL teams make their final cuts in a couple of weeks, the Falcons have to hope Weatherspoon stays healthy and they get increased production from Dent and Nicholas.
“We’re always trying to perfect the techniques in terms of covering backs and tight ends because the league is going with more spread offenses,” Dent said. “I’m always trying to be my own critic and I need to improve every aspect of my game — being real loud in pre-snap communication, staying making the right reads, getting off blocks and leverage. We’re out here trying to be the best we can be.”
Notes: TE Tony Gonzalez, on leave from the team since the second day of camp to spend time with his family, is likely to return to practice early next week and be in uniform when the Falcons visit Tennessee. Gonzalez, the NFL’s No. 2 career leading receiver, was given permission to miss time this month after signing a one-year contract in March. The 37-year-old Gonzalez will retire after the season. ... Smith indicated that WR Julio Jones, who missed last week’s game because of sore hamstrings, likely will play at Baltimore. Jones has practiced the last three days.