Mini-camp and training camp has always been the venue for players to compete for starting jobs in the NFL. For the Falcons, there is one positional competition that will be more hotly contested than any other: the Middle Linebacker position.
There will be great competition along the offensive line, but for the most part we know how that will turn out. I don’t think there is a soul alive who can honestly say they are absolutely certain who will emerge as the winner of this competition.
You know the situation well. The Falcons allowed Curtis Lofton to walk away from the team in free-agency. With a laundry list of both offensive and defensive players slated have their contracts run out, the Falcons viewed Lofton as the one free-agent who was expendable. Atlanta probably would have tried harder to keep him if they could have gotten a new contract for a reasonable price, but for the money Lofton was demanding and the production level that he brought to the team, the Falcons felt it was not essential to re-sign him. That even meant they were willing to allow bitter division rival New Orleans to sign him and his 492 career tackles. But I digress.
The competition for the 2012 MLB position will be between Akeem Dent, a second year player from the University of Georgia who was behind Lofton on the depth chart in 2011, and six-year veteran and three-time Pro-Bowler Lofa Tatupu. Each has his own strengths and attributes. Let’s start with Dent.
Akeem Dent is a young player who brings a lot of athleticism and a bit more explosive play-making ability. At Georgia, he was known for dishing out big hits and trying to make big hits all the time. As a result, his tackling sometimes suffered, or he required help with tackles. That is something Dent is going to have to work on throughout tackling. At MLB, solid tackling isn’t the most important thing from a production standpoint; its the only thing. Dent will probably not be asked to do too much from a defensive play-calling perspective with Sean Weatherspoon taking on some of those responsibilities, but he will be asked to be a sure tackler and use his great athleticism to put his hat on the ball.
Lofa Tatupu is almost the opposite of Dent. After suffering a severe pectoral injury and missing most of the 2009 season, he came back and was very effective once again in 2010. However, right after the 2010 season, he had surgery on both of his knees. In the offseason the Seattle Seahawks asked him to re-structure his contract–and take less money–which he refused to do. He then was cut, and after sustaining double knee surgery sat out all of 2011. Both he and the Falcons feel he is healthy and ready to perform at a high level. Tatupu is a very smart player, and could easily take on the responsibilities of defensive play-caller on 1st and 2nd down. He did it in Seattle, and he could easily perform those duties very well here in Atlanta. The only drawback with Tatupu is that he is not an explosive player. He wouldn’t be able to get a bundle of sacks or lay the lumber quite as hard as Dent would. He is very strong in the tackling department and rarely lets someone escape his grip. He also doesn’t need to have a squadron of defensive teammates help him finish the tackle.
I think the Falcons would like to see Dent, a 2011 3rd round draft pick, to emerge as the victor. That doesn’t mean that a platoon of Dent and Tatupu won’t work very effectively this season, but as Dent learns more about how to play the game and how best to play defense, any edge that Tatupu has would tilt toward Dent.
So what will it be for the Falcons? Will it the the more athletic, explosive, and turnover creating but mistake prone Dent who will win the starting job? Or will it be Tatupu, who is not as capable physically, but is a smarter player with a boat load of experience, and is a very sure tackler? Only time will tell. And that time will come during training camp, which is quickly approaching.