Starting middle linebacker Akeem Dent is in his second season with the team, but first as a starter on defense. He was a special teams ace last year as a rookie, but rarely saw playing time on any other unit besides special teams.
Because Lofa Tatupu will miss the season with a pectoral injury, Dent will be forced into action. To get Dent comfortable playing in the middle of the defense for the first time as a pro on a regular basis, he needs as many reps as he can get—practice, scrimmage, preseason game, you name it.
Why was Dent on the punt return team Thursday?
Dent proved everything he needed to last season as the Falcons special teams MVP. It was well known he could do that job.
But he was still out there in preseason Game 1, and got hurt.
Dent left the game after being knocked to the ground on special teams. The Falcons announced that the injury was a head injury and that he wouldn’t return to the game. But nothing else was revealed.
At best, Dent got his bell rung but it wasn’t a concussion and he’ll return to practice on Saturday.
A much worse scenario would be a concussion and Dent would have to enter the league’s concussion protocol and wait until he was symptom-free before he could work his way back onto the field.
That would take away valuable practice time from a second-year player—a first-year starter with little experience—who greatly needs all the reps he can get.
The Falcons are very thin at middle linebacker. After releasing Tatupu, the team signed veteran Mike Peterson. He’s listed behind Dent on the depth chart and is a capable fill-in. But that’s not the route the Falcons wanted to take.
Atlanta needs Dent on the field and learning. The team needs him on the field and healthy.
All the more reason why it was a questionable move to have him in the game on special teams Thursday.