D. Orlando Ledbetter of the AJC reports that the Falcons are set to release linebacker Lofa Tatupu today with an injury settlement. The team announced yesterday that Tatupu would miss the entire season with a torn pectoral injury. Players reported today for the Falcons training camp. Practices begin tomorrow, and with the impending release of Tatupu the Falcons will have an available roster position to fill. By cutting Tatupu, the Falcons save roughly $400,000 in 2012 cap space.
The Falcons announced today that linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who suffered an injury last week is out for the 2012 season due to a torn pectoral muscle. Tatupu was injured while benching, and saw specialist Dr. James Andrews on Monday. Tatupu will undergo season-ending surgery at some point in the future. The Falcons will have the option of placing him on the injured reserve and free up an additional roster spot for training camp which begins on Thursday.
Tatupu’s sidelining likely makes Akeem Dent the front-runner for the team’s vacant starting middle linebacker position. The team signed veteran Mike Peterson yesterday to add depth and potentially push Dent. Peterson has experience playing all three linebacker positions, and will likely be counted on depth rather than becoming the starter.
Jeff Schultz of the AJC reports that linebacker Lofa Tatupu has suffered a pectoral injury while lifting weights on Thursday. The extent of the injury is not known, but it is expected that he’ll at least miss the opening of training camp next week per D. Orlando Ledbetter of the AJC. Ledbetter terms the injury “serious.” Per Ledbetter, a grade one strain requires a few days of recovery. A grade two strain could put a player out for up to six weeks. And a fully torn pectoral muscle requires surgery and presumably would cost Tatupu the entire 2012 season. The severity of the injury will not be known until next week. In the mean time, Tatupu is expected to see noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews.
Tatupu tore his pectoral in 2009 while with the Seahawks and missed all but five games that season. The Falcons report to camp this upcoming Wednesday and practices begin on Thursday. Tatupu was expected to compete with Akeem Dent for the starting middle linebacker position, as a replacement for Curtis Lofton. With the move to sideline Matt Hansen, the Falcons have an available roster spot for a veteran linebacker if need be.
The Falcons linebacker position should see some solid competition this summer during training camp. One of the starting positions will be determined this summer, as well as the team could be looking at infusing their depth with a lot of youth.
One player that does not have to worry about his job is Sean Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon will be counted on becoming the anchor for the Falcons unit. Weatherspoon emerged as one of the league’s top 4-3 outside linebackers last year and had a Pro Bowl caliber season. He hopes to continue that this year with another strong season where he’ll actually get a chance to play in Hawaii. He’ll be a core piece of the Falcons defense under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. With the additions the team has made at cornerback, it is expected that the Falcons will operate a lot out of the nickel as their base defensive package. It will mean that Weatherspoon’s ability in coverage will be a key asset to have in such situations. He’ll be counted on largely to cover the many solid tight ends that now dot the league.
Who will line up beside him in those nickel situations will need to be determined via competition this summer. The Falcons have three candidates that will be fighting to be in the nickel package. Strongside starter Stephen Nicholas and whoever wins the middle linebacker spot: Lofa Tatupu or Akeem Dent, will be in the mix for the role. Nicholas’ job on the strong side is safe, but he was marginalized for much of last year in part because of injuries. Also his snap count was reduced by about a third last year because he was taken off the field in nickel situations. If he wants to return to becoming a regular contributor, he’ll have to show Nolan that he can be more than just functional on passing downs, he’ll need to be good.
The competition for the starting spot at middle linebacker however will get the bulk of the attention this summer. Lofa Tatupu is coming off a year where he sat out the season and will compete with second year player Akeem Dent. Tatupu is the savvy veteran while Dent is the fresh, young upstart. This should be a fairly even and fair competition as the team is simply looking for the best player. More than likely, as the season goes on, both players will get playing time. But this summer, one player is expected to emerge as the guy that should get the brunt of the work. Before injuries sapped his ability, Tatupu was one of the league’s better middle linebackers. He’ll hope to show that those injury concerns are behind him, and answer the questions about whether he still has the speed and range to be an effective starter.
Dent should fare a little better in that arena, as he’s the more athletic of the two. But the key for Dent is that he’s going to have to show a certain awareness that is necessary to be able to play in the middle at the NFL level. It remains to be seen if he has developed that after one year of minimal work on defense. Dent was never lacking in the instinctual aspects of the game during his days at Georgia, but it’s a fairly big leap to the NFL level. His predecessor Curtis Lofton took nearly half of his rookie season before he really started to get comfortable in that area.
As with Nicholas, one way that either player can distinguish themselves from the other is by performing well in coverage. That could be the tie-breaker. Dent has the athletic ability to better match up in coverage, but Tatupu’s experience gives him the edge on awareness in knowing where he should be and where his assignments should take him. It is going to be an interesting competition.
What also needs to be determined, is which player if any of the linebackers will dawn the green dot on their helmet in order to receive information from the coaches and make the defensive calls on the field. That role was previously held by Lofton, and among the current players, only Tatupu has experience doing that. It remains to be seen if that will be a factor in camp competition. But it is also not unheard of for teams to give that role to safeties if need be. Weatherspoon would make a strong candidate since he’s a sure bet to be an everydown player at linebacker.
Regardless, those four players are virtual locks to make the final roster. Because of their need to provide depth elsewhere on the roster, the Falcons have been known to only carry six linebackers on their 53-man roster during the regular season. That policy is likely to continue this year. The two veteran incumbents for those spots include Spencer Adkins and Robert James. Adkins got reps late last year as an injury replacement for Nicholas and had his moments. Adkins has good speed and can be an effective attacking linebacker, but his hips and flexibility are less than desired, which can get him in trouble in coverage. He is the safer of the two. James has only garnered marginal playing time in four years on and off the practice squad. In fact, in four summers with the team James has been on the team’s opening day 53-man roster only once. It makes his foothold on a final roster spot tenuous at best.
Because of that, it gives the team’s group of undrafted free agents a better than average chance to make an impression and win a roster spot. Outside linebackers like Jerrell Harris and Max Gruder probably have the slightly better odds since they will be filling a reserve spot on the outside, but inside guys like Rico Council and Pat Schiller also will be in the mix. Likely their chances will come down to who showcases the best on special teams because if any of them make the team, their role will be entirely in that arena. All four have similar athleticism, although both Harris and Council tested slightly better at their respective pro days this past spring. Harris and Gruder have the added benefit of playing in some 3-4 schemes while in college, which could help them grasp schematically some of the things that Nolan will try to do in camp.
With the departure of Eric Weems, Dent becomes the team’s top special teams player. And if he wins the starting job, then it’s likely that he’ll get a lot less reps on special teams. It will be important that one of these young guys can step up and fill the void left by him if that situation arises. Otherwise the team could be scouring the waiver wire come the end of August, looking for someone that can.
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.
Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the Falcons have reached an agreement with free agent linebacker Lofa Tatupu, a player they worked out yesterday. Prior to joining the Falcons, Tatupu played six seasons with the Seattle Seahawks (2005-10) and made three Pro Bowls.
Tatupu missed all of the 2011 season due to lingering knee issues from double arthroscopic surgery on both knees from January 2011. But apparently is healthy and ready to go. Tatupu gives the Falcons a solid insurance policy at middle linebacker if the team is unsuccessful with re-signing Curtis Lofton, who will become a free agent on Tuesday.
Adam Schefter of ESPN tweets that the Falcons worked out free agent linebacker Lofa Tatupu earlier today. Tatupu sat out all of the 2011 season due to injuries after being released by the Seattle Seahawks last summer after the lockout. Tatupu has been making rounds with workouts since the end of the season, including working out with the Tennessee Titans and New Orleans Saints last month.
Tatupu managed to play and start in all 16 games in 2010, but finished with 88 tackles, a career-low in seasons where he played in 15 or more games. Tatupu was a second round pick for the Seahawks in 2005. He emerged quickly, earning a Pro Bowl bid as a rookie, helping to anchor a Seahawk defense that went all the way to the Super Bowl. He would also make the Pro BOwl in 2006 and 2007. He missed 11 games in 2009 with a torn pectoral muscle, but it was knee injuries that helped limit him in 2010. He would undergo arthroscopic surgery on both knees. Tatupu’s late father, Mosi, was a Pro Bowl fullback who spent nearly all of his professional career with the New England Patriots (1978-90).
Tatupu could be seen as a potential insurance policy if the Falcons aren’t able to retain free agent Curtis Lofton next week with the signing period beginning on Tuesday. Like Lofton, Tatupu was never the biggest or fastest player, but known for his toughness and leadership. Lofton has been criticized for his issues in coverage over the years, recording just 3 interceptions and 15 pass breakups in four seasons with the Falcons. That was an area that was considered a strength for Tatupu in the past, with 10 interceptions and 35 breakups in nearly five and a half season. However, any decline due to Tatupu’s injury concerns could make any upgrade potential negligible.