A year ago, I questioned whether drafting Dent was a good move by the Falcons. That question could be quickly answered with Dent poised to make significantly more contributions in 2012 due to the void of two departed players.
Those two players include middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and special teams ace Eric Weems. Last year, almost all of Dent’s contributions came on special teams, but this year he’ll be asked to make greater contributions on defense.
I was not surprised to find that Dent excelled on special teams last year. According to Football Outsiders, he tied for the league-lead with return stops last year. Their definition of a stop is similar to what is credited via Moneyball as a tackle on special teams. Dent paced the Falcons last year with 5.5 tackles on kickoff returns of less than 20 yards, and also was also tied for third on the team with 2.5 tackles on punt returns which held opponents to returns of 5 or less yards. And almost all of Dent’s production on special teams came in the second half of the season when the Falcons were able to coax more production out of kickoff specialist and punter Matt Bosher. It also indicates Dent’s improvement over the course of the season.
Where Dent is much more untested is on defense. The team signed veteran Lofa Tatupu at the outset of the off-season to give them veteran insuranc. He and Dent are expected to compete for the starting middle linebacker spot vacated by Lofton. The team will likely choose Tatupu because of his experience, leadership, and also the simple fact that the less work Dent gets on defense means the more work he can get on special teams where he is clearly valuable. But Dent is not going to make it easy for him.
Even if Tatupu is chosen as the starter, you can expect Dent to be worked regularly into the lineup at times. The Falcons have regularly used four linebackers in their defensive rotations in the past, and that probably won’t change under new DC Mike Nolan. Gone are Lofton and Mike Peterson, with Tatupu and Dent likely to replace them.
Where the Falcons may try to get Dent the most work is in nickel situations. With the addition of Asante Samuel, the Falcons are expected to make ample use of their nickel formation which will limit two linebackers on the field the majority of the time. Last year, starters Sean Weatherspoon and Lofton manned those spots. But with Lofton’s departure, it gives the team an open spot that Dent can potentially grab. Given Tatupu’s age and the fact that he is coming off double knee surgery, the team is probably on the lookout for someone with fresher legs to man that spot. Stephen Nicholas is probably the front-runner given his experience in coverage and he offers the most value as a blitzer. But with a strong summer, Dent can potentially steal reps. It’s possible that the Falcons could platoon all three players in that role dependent on the situation and what sort of look Nolan wants to present.
Coverage was never Dent’s strong suit during his days at Georgia, but given his youth and the fact that Nicholas is nothing special in coverage and Tatupu is aging, there is ample room for Dent to grow there. It’s the area where he can make the quickest and earliest impact on regular defense. And while it may not immediately translate into extensive reps in 2012, any growth he shows from this point till the end of the season can easily carry over in 2013. Then he could slide into the full-time role as the starter at middle linebacker alongside Sean Weatherspoon. If Dent shows similar growth there as he did in his role on special teams last year, then it won’t be long until he’s a regular contributor on the Falcons defense.