According to the Atlanta Falcon’s head coach Mike Smith, veteran Lofa Tatupu and second year player Akeem Dent will compete for the starting job at the middle ‘Mike’ linebacker position.
The Falcons felt comfortable enough with the talent and athleticism of Dent, and the leadership and defensive understanding of Tatupu, to allow Curtis Lofton walk away from the team in free agency.
A lot has been made of the thought that new Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan did not feel comfortable with Lofton as a three-down linebacker; basically Nolan said that Lofton could not play coverage on third-downs. The question then needs to be asked, will a combo of Dent and Tatupu be able to play all three downs? I think the answer is no. And I think the Falcons have an answer at linebacker on third-downs.
The answer is on the roster in the persons of Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas. Both are solid against the run, drop into coverage well, blitz well, and could be used by Nolan as a linebacker in third-down ‘nickel’ or ‘dime’ (5 and 6 defensive back) sets. Both are extremely athletic, and Weatherspoon has become quite a play-making linebacker at the weakside linebacker position.
Using Weatherspoon/Nicholas as linebackers on third-downs will definitely help the Falcons. Not only did the Falcons save a good amount of money by not signing Lofton to a large contract when he would potentially only be playing the first two downs of a series in Nolan’s defense, but the ability to use those linebackers at blitzers or coverage men adds another dimension to the defense. Lofton was not particularly great in coverage, or a great blitzer; he was smart, and a good tackler, but brought no particular upside to the position.
Obviously the Falcons would like Dent to step up from day one and start at MLB. He is young, is a Georgia boy, and would be a huge hit on a late round draft pick for Thomas Dimitroff. Weatherspoon and Nicholas are already very good at what they do, so there is not need to diminish their playmaking ability by moving them to the inside. Even if Tatupu wins the job right out of training camp, the Falcons still have solid depth at the MLB position, and will have a smart player who is once again healthy and well rested to count on as a tackler in the run-game.
What are your thoughts on turning the MLB position to a platoon of Dent and Tatupu?