Mike Smith: MLB job is wide open

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- With Curtis Lofton moving to the New Orleans Saints as a free agent, Atlanta coach Mike Smith isn’t ready to say who his new starting middle linebacker will be.

The candidates obviously are veteran Lofa Tatupu and second-year pro Akeem Dent. The fact is Smith doesn’t even want to pick one right now. He wants this thing to sort itself out on the field.

“I think those two guys are coming to camp and will compete for the Mike linebacker position,’’ Smith said during this week’s owners meetings. “They’ll be on even terms. It’s an open competition. We believe in open competition. We believe you get what you earn and you earn what you get.’’

Coaches often spew clich├ęs about open competitions, but don’t mean them because they’ve already made a decision or at least are leaning strongly in another direction. But, in this case, I think Smith is being completely honest.

He wants the competition between Dent and Tatupu to play out naturally. There’s really not a bad option here. In a best-case scenario, I think the Falcons would be thrilled if Dent steps forward and shows he’s ready for the starting job. He’s the guy they want there in the long term anyway. But I don’t think the Falcons will go into a panic if Dent’s not ready to start. Tatupu is their insurance policy. He sat out last season and should be rested and healthy. He once was a very good player in Seattle and might have something left in the tank.

I also get the impression that whoever wins the job might only be a two-down player. Part of the reason the Falcons didn’t want to pay Lofton big money was because new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan didn’t want to use him on passing downs. I’m not sure they want to use Dent or Tatupu in those situations either.

The Falcons have two quick and athletic outside linebackers in Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas. I don’t think they’d mind going with them on passing downs.