One of the most anticipated position battles of the 2012 Atlanta Falcons training camp has been decided before any player stepped foot onto the field.
“As you know, Lofa suffered a pectoral injury last week,” said head coach Mike Smith. “After further testing, it was determined that he would require a procedure to repair the injury, and unfortunately he will miss the entire season.”
Are the Falcons OK at linebacker, or do they need to look at another free agent?
Tatupu was signed in March and brought in to compete with second-year linebacker Akeem Dent for the open middle-linebacker job vacated by former Falcon Curtis Lofton, who signed with the New Orleans Saints.
Dent will now be anointed as the team’s starter in the middle of the defense.
On the bright side, Dent will be able to take every snap with the first-team defense during the entirety of training camp—a valuable method to gain some experience.
The problem is, however, that Dent played only 10 snaps on defense last year during his rookie campaign. The experience he’s about to get during training camp with the first-team defense will be his only experience.
It’s not as if Dent watched from the sideline the entire 2011 season.
Dent led the Falcons with 19 special-teams tackles last season. As each week passed, Dent became more and more comfortable with the speed of the NFL and grew on Atlanta special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong.
Armstrong, who said Dent’s success on special teams came from a mixture of intelligence and aggressiveness, raved about Dent’s work ethic. Not only did Armstrong spend time on the field with his unit every day, he also met one-on-one with every member of the special teams unit on a weekly basis.
According to Armstrong, Dent spent a lot of extra time with the coordinator asking questions, breaking down schemes and buying into Armstrong’s aggressive philosophy.
Dent will be best served to take that stellar work ethic and focus his efforts now with linebackers coach Glenn Pires and the rest of the linebacker corps.
“Akeem, now having an offseason—which he didn’t have last year—is fully taking advantage of that,” Pires said during organized team activities in June. “He’s been great in meetings, he did great on special teams last year, and I think he’s really taken advantage of all this time we have right now.”
Pires said Dent always felt he was behind last season because he didn’t have the foundation that would have come from an offseason program that was lost to the players because of the lockout.
“He came along as the season was going and he was kind of catching up,” said Pires. “I thought he was [getting] more comfortable, and it’s starting to show now.”
Dent said that now he has a better grasp of the defense after a “rough” 2011 season in which he had trouble at times catching on. Because of the time he’s getting with the team this offseason, he said there wouldn’t be any issues picking up the new system the defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is installing.
“Everything kind of translates over and over,” said Dent, who going back to his four years at the University of Georgia has experience four new defensive coordinators. “It’s just different formations and different terms. It’s not too hard.”
Dent emerged as an elite tackler during his senior season at Georgia. He led the team with 126 tackles and has 2.5 sacks with 6.5 tackles for loss.
Now Dent must take that experience from college and wrap it into his offseason workout program and the experience he’ll gain in the upcoming weeks at training camp.
If Dent adapts to the linebacker position and grows quickly like he did on special teams, the Falcons will be fine in the middle of the defense.