The Falcons have a job opening at middle linebacker and this offseason heading into training camp it's shaping up to be a classic kind of battle: Veteran vs. Youngster.
With the loss of four-year starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton in free agency, the Falcons signed former All-Pro Lofa Tatupu to come into camp and compete with 2011 third-round linebacker Akeem Dent. Tatupu missed all of last season as he sat out recuperating from injuries and Dent spent the majority of his time as a special teams ace.
This season Tatupu is healthy and Dent has a shot at the job.
On Wednesday, linebackers coach Glenn Pires said Tatupu's background has helped him come in quickly and learn the system. The foundation for what is shaping up to be a hotly-contested training camp battle is being laid now and it's Tatupu's experience against Dent's youthful enthusiasm.
Tatupu's resume speaks for itself and Dent is still writing his. Pires helped the young linebacker out a little and described a player who is committed to doing everything he can to win the job the right way.
"He's a very detailed, diligent guy," Pires said. "He wants to do it the way we do it. He's a team guy that way. He's going to be exactly where he's supposed to be. Now, he's got the explosiveness to go make a play. He's a very consceientous guy, a great team guy."
The best part about the two players is the degree to which they're helping each other win the job. It's a frequently asked question around the league: How do you handle your relationship with a player you're competing against. Time and time again the answer is the same: We just want what is best for the team. The same is true in the Tatupu-Dent relationship.
When Dent saw that Lofton would be departing the Falcons, he knew he'd have a shot. Even with the addition of Tatupu, he still has a shot and he works the relationship just as he did with Lofton, trying to learn everything he can from a veteran who has seen success in the league.
"Bringing in Lofa, it's the same way," Dent said. "We're always inside watching film together. He still brings those leadership qualities that Curt (Lofton) had. It's working out well... It's great for me. I'm a competitor. He's a competitor. He's been around and knows the game. I'm just a guy that is willing to go in and do whatever it takes to help my team."
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan runs a scheme that often utilizes six defensive backs requiring one linebacker to come off the field. Occasionally that linebacker will be the middle linebacker, but Dent says that doesn't change the way he and Tatupu will man the position under Nolan.
"It all depends on the call or the situation," Dent said. "Most of the time it's the same as any other linebacker. You have to run and hit. That's the main thing. As a defensive unit, we have to go out and bring a lot of fight and attitude and run around and make plays."
According to head coach Mike Smith, the playing field is even since all the linebackers are learning a new scheme. With starting linebacker Stephen Nicholas out of the OTAs recovering from an injury, Smith said Dent is getting a lot more reps. To earn the job at the end of training camp, Dent — or Tatupu for that matter — will have to emerge as "one of the three best linebackers."
One of the buzz words of the offseason has been "competition." Smith and his staff have upgraded and stocked the roster in a number of key positions with the hope of raising the level of competition among his team. Few jobs are guaranteed and players with strong offseasons and training camps can emerge as starters.
Tatupu vs. Dent will be one of exciting battles to watch once training camp begins.