When Atlanta's defense takes the field Sunday against the Chiefs, it's safe to say there's really only one player out there that will be starting for the first time in the NFL.
Akeem Dent, the winner of the middle linebacker race and second-year player, is expected to be a vital cog in the middle of Atlanta's run defense this season. When the Falcons move into a nickel defense on passing downs, Dent will come off the field, but it doesn't diminish his value, especially against the Chiefs.
He's replacing a popular player in Curtis Lofton, who helped guide the Falcons run D to a No. 6 ranking last season. Stopping the run will still be vital for the Falcons this season, considering the potential they have as a pass defense. Limiting opponents' ability to run the ball will force more passes and takeaway opportunities.
Dent understands his role religiously and is focused on not trying to overdo things in his first start. Surrounded by media on Wednesday at his locker, he repeatedly spoke about playing assignment football and remaining fundamentally sound. He finally added that he did want to try to "make some plays."
He admitted one other thing, as well. There will be nerves before the game begins. But not the kind you think.
"I have butterflies each game," Dent said. "It's just the anticipation and being ready to get out there and play a football game. It's more excitement and energy."
One of the linebackers to his side, Sean Weatherspoon, a player familiar with expectations, said he's not talking to Dent this week, and it's not because his Missouri Tigers are playing Dent's Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday.
"We haven't talked too much about the first game," Weatherspoon said. "I think he's had a chance to get his feet wet a little bit. Last year he played late in some games and throughout the preseason he's had a chance to get his feet wet. I won't talk to him too much because if you talk to a guy too much, you'll get him riled up and thinking. I think it's best if he goes out there and does what Akeem does and that's play downhill and be a spark for our defense."
With the Chiefs expected to feature a run-heavy, dual-back attack, Dent could be one of Atlanta's players with a target on his back. The Chiefs will likely test Dent to see how he responds. Weatherspoon said he wouldn't be surprised if Kansas City takes a few chances right at Dent.
"They'll be watching him to see how he's been playing and try to see some things where they can try to gain an advantage in the aspect of going against him, but I think he'll be fine and ready for it," Weatherspoon said.