FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- On the surface, it may look like the Atlanta Falcons have a huge problem at middle linebacker.
They lost Curtis Lofton, the starter the past four years, to New Orleans in free agency. Then, veteran Lofa Tatupu, the guy who was supposed to replace Lofton, at least on a short-term basis, suffered a pectoral injury just before the start of training camp and was released.
That’s why Akeem Dent, who has made zero NFL starts and has 13 career tackles, has been working as the first-team middle linebacker since the start of camp. There’s no doubt the Falcons wish Tatupu hadn’t been injured, but they're not looking at his loss as the end of the world. That’s because they started planning for a scenario like this more than a year ago.
“Curtis was a fine football player and we knew there was a legitimate chance he would not be with us this year when we drafted Akeem last year,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “We knew that Akeem was a potential Mike linebacker for us. ... Akeem is a very competitive, strong individual with a strong passion for the game. Unfortunately for us, we lost Lofa. Lofa was brought in here for a number of reasons. One as a leader and two to compete with Akeem Dent for the starting Mike backer position. It was going to be a very strong competition. Unfortunately, Lofa’s moved on from our organization. It’s up to Akeem to continue to work and grow into that position.’’
Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith aren’t ready to firmly say that Dent is the starter and long-term answer at middle linebacker. But I get the sense that they’re not out there actively looking to bring in another veteran.
“Thomas and his staff are not like a coach who looks from Sunday to Sunday,’’ Smith said. “They’re looking a year or a couple years down the road. We drafted Akeem Dent last year in the third round with the intent that at some point in time he would be our starting Mike linebacker. He played behind Curtis Lofton in Year 1 and played on special teams. Now, he’s going to get his opportunity to do it. I think Akeem is going to be a learning mode.
"But I think he has the pieces around him to help him. We have Mike Peterson back on our roster and he’s played all three linebacker positions. He’s going to be a great resource for Akeem. I think [outside linebacker] Sean Weatherspoon is going to have a big impact on Akeem as well because he’s only one year removed from what Akeem is going through right now. I think Akeem will use those resources along with his coaches and we’ll get him ready. He just needs to experience the game. We feel like he has the skill set to play Mike linebacker for us.’’