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Julio Jones may be the man, but Eric Weems is the Falcons’ guy

Getting to the Super Bowl isn’t just about gaudy stats and hard work, it’s also about hard work and dependability

At first look, Eric Weems doesn’t particularly grab you and make you look. The veteran Atlanta Falcons wide receiver is a career backup and special-teams player. He entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Bethune-Cookman and has never had a starring role in the offense. In sports vernacular, Weems is someone who would be commonly called a “a guy.”

So why is Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan always going on and on about him? While rattling off a list of unsung contributors to the Falcons’ Super Bowl run, the playcaller paused after mentioning Weems. There, Shanahan explained, you’ve got to dig a little deeper to appreciate the dude’s importance to the NFC champions. If you look beyond Weems’ statistics, Shanahan said, you’ll actually find a good story.

“He’s the type of guy who you really don’t appreciate until you’re on a team with him,” Shanahan told The Undefeated this week. “But once you’re around him, and you see how he goes about his job each day and that he’s always prepared, you realize he’s exactly the type of guy you want on your team. You need guys like him on your team.”

Throughout his 10 years in the NFL, Weems has always made an extremely positive impression, if mostly off-field. No one in his position sticks around in the NFL as long as he has if that isn’t true. Coaches love him because he’s drama-free. Shanahan and Falcons wide receivers coach Raheem Morris never worry about Weems dropping the ball – literally or figuratively – if they call on him in a pinch. And he’s the Falcons’ leader on special teams.

Weems started as a standout receiver/returner at Bethune-Cookman. The Daytona Beach, Florida, native had a great stretch making big plays for his hometown school, and he figured he’d keep that rolling in the NFL. But like many players coming in from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), though, Weems quickly learned that the NFL viewed his accomplishments a lot less favorably than he did.

Weems was not picked in the 2007 draft, probably because in league scouting circles, generally speaking, the perception is that players from HBCUs aren’t NFL-good. The default position is that few are capable of sticking on an NFL roster, let alone significantly contribute to a Super Bowl-bound team.

For those HBCU student-athletes fortunate enough to be drafted or signed as rookie free agents, they face more and higher hurdles than other newcomers. It’s just how it works. Weems understands the deal now.

“That’s the perception. Most definitely,” Weems said. “The perception is that the competition isn’t good because [you were] at an HBCU. You were at a small school. But you do compete against guys giving their best. So if it’s in your heart and mind to be your best, and you’re going against guys giving their best, it’s only going to help you. It’s only going to make you get better.”

After signing with the Falcons, Weems stepped up his grind. Steadily, he earned the trust of the then-Falcons’ coaching regime. By his third season, Weems was Atlanta’s primary punt and kickoff returner. By his fourth, he was a Pro Bowler. During a playoff game against the Green Bay Packers following the 2010 season, Weems fielded a kickoff two yards deep in the end zone and returned the ball 102 yards for a touchdown. It was the longest play in NFL postseason history. Weems owns that.

Just another example of hard work helping someone go a long way? “Hard work brings good luck,” Weems said. “Everything else will take care of itself.”

Once Weems proved he could ball at the highest levels, the rest of the NFL began to notice. Following four seasons with Atlanta, he signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency. Weems spent two seasons in Chicago, then re-signed with Atlanta before the 2014 season. Even at 31, an age when most players are long retired from a league whose initials, some players say, should stand for Not For Long, Weems continues to produce.

This season, he ranked sixth in the league in punt returns with an 11.4 average. In a Week 2 victory over the Oakland Raiders, Weems had a 73-yard punt return. Shanahan raves about Weems’ work in the return game.

“He’s as good of a leader as I’ve been around, as good of a special-teams player as I’ve ever been around,” Shanahan said. “And you’re not going to find anyone tougher.”

Although Weems doesn’t get much run on offense, Shanahan does trust him in the passing game. In 135 career games, Weems only has 38 receptions for 353 yards and four touchdowns. The Falcons have a strong receiving corps led by superstar Julio Jones, “but if anybody goes down on offense and we needed him, he always keeps up with the scheme, keeps up with the game plan, and we would never hesitate to use him,” Shanahan said.

Having the respect of the men with whom he works matters most to Weems. “I’m thankful for it,” Weems said. “I’m thankful that he [Shanahan] recognizes me for that. I put in the work every day. I go hard for my teammates. I love the guys I play with. So my hard work, my dedication, is also for them.” So as it turns out, Weems is more than just a guy. He’s the guy on whom the Falcons depend.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.