While much of the post-draft debate has centered on whether the Julio Jones trade-up was a good move or not, the biggest question mark of the Falcons 2011 draft class is arguably the next player they took off the board: Georgia linebacker Akeem Dent.
There is very little question of Jones’ skills. The only question there is whether the Falcons gave up too much to acquire those skills and only time will tell. But one wonders whether Dent has the skills that merited the Falcons taking him with a late third round pick.
My initial reaction was that Dent was not worth that high a pick, particularly for a 4-3 team like the Falcons. Dent fits best as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. That is the best scheme and role where he can maximize his skills at the NFL level. Playing in a 4-3 is not likely to maximize his skillset, which leaves questions of what the Falcons saw in Dent that many others, including myself did not see.
So I went back and watched some more tape on Dent to see if I could figure it out. Here is what I saw…
Not much different. Dent is a good football player, there is no denying that. And the Falcons under Thomas Dimitroff have made it a habit selecting good football players: guys with toughness, character, and winning attitudes. Dent is not lacking in those areas.
But the question becomes with a third round pick, does Dent have a unique skillset that he helps the Falcons defense? Does Dent bring in any new traits to the lineup that current Falcon players already don’t have? And where does his potential lie? How will the Falcons utilize him to try and maximize his production and skillset? Will he go beyond being a good football player to being a reliable playmaker?
The weakness of the Falcons group of linebackers collectively seems to be in coverage. Curtis Lofton improved in that area last year after a dismal 2009 campaign, but he’s still limited and prone to give up plays there. Sean Weatherspoon has the talent to really be a solid cover man, but was plagued with rookie mistakes and mental lapses throughout 2010. Stephen Nicholas has also improved over the past year, but he too is limited in how much he can do going forward.
Dent doesn’t add anything there that the Falcons don’t already have. He does a good job keeping things in front of him when covering backs in the flat and tight ends over the middle, but he’s not going to make the Falcons better suited to cover the likes of players like Pierre Thomas, Jimmy Graham, Kellen Winslow, etc.
This is the area where Dent probably excels the most. After looking more at the tape, I think Dent is a much better tackler than I previously gave him credit for. He has a good nose for the ball and is a consistent, head-up, wrap up tackler that will deliver a hit to the ballcarrier consistently. Potentially, his tackling ability can match up with Curtis Lofton. And Dent may actually be a better tackler than Lofton, particularly when it comes to making stops in space.
SPEED & INSTINCTS
Thomas Dimitroff constantly talks about “athletic urgency” in regards to adding more speed and explosiveness to the Falcons defense. Dent has nice speed, but he’s nothing special in that regard. He’s not a guy that is going to fly around the football field and make plays with his range all over the field.
Dent has nice instincts, but he’s nothing special in that realm. He’s a guy that can get caught playing on his heels at times, which can get him in trouble. With experience, he’s a guy that can get better in that regard. He doesn’t get caught out of position a ton, but he’s not a guy that is so instinctual that it makes up for his lack of ideal speed and athleticism.
He’s a better pursuit player than probably Stephen Nicholas, but not quite up to the level with the other guys.
WHERE DOES HE FIT IN?
Part of the questions I have surrounding Dent is where exactly he fits in. Most of the early scuttlebutt seems to be having the Falcons playing him at all three linebacker positions. It would seem the most likely spot where he could get immediate playing time is on the outside, as a replacement for Stephen Nicholas/MIke Peterson. Nicholas is a potential free agent, and seems poised to test the market which could mean he may not be back in Atlanta. Peterson is also a free agent, and it doesn’t seem like the Falcons will make a strong effort to bring him back in the fold.
I think Dent brings much of the same traits to the table that Nicholas does. But he’s probably a more instinctual run defender and tackler than Nicholas. But I think he’s a downgrade vs. the pass over Nicholas. It’s probably a wash as far as coverage abilities go, but Nicholas is the superior blitzer and pass rusher. Which means Nicholas is going to be more valuable in nickel situations.
With all that said, if Nicholas does depart before the season starts, it would seem that Coy Wire may be the Falcons best option as his immediate replacement. That’s not a knock against Dent, it’s just that long-term he doesn’t really add anything to the lineup that Nicholas did not already have. It just seems like an even swap. You replace Nicholas with Dent for a couple of seasons, and then when his contract is up in four years, you likely are looking at someone else to replace him.
One other possibility is that the Falcons were attracted to Dent because he provides them with insurance at middle linebacker. Curtis Lofton is entering the final year of his contract, and perhaps the Falcons are not completely convinced they will be able to bring him back in 2012. Like Dent, Lofton fits best inside in a 3-4 rather than playing the middle in a 4-3. So who better to potentially replace Lofton than a similar player in Dent? But Dent is not as good as Lofton. And as is the case with Lofton, his major area of weakness is in coverage. And even if the Falcons were to make that move, their coverage issues will continue to plague them.
So in conclusion, I’m still not completely sold why the Falcons liked Dent so much to take him off the board in the third round. Had they taken him in the fifth round, this would not be as big an issue because there his value would be just fine. But in the third round, you hope to get a player that is an upgrade over your current unit. And that does not appear to be the case with Dent. He seems to be a continuation of what the Falcons already have, which is a tough, hard-nose run defender, but somewhat a liability in coverage.
In the end, Dent is a nice addition to the Falcons. He should be a competent football player, but probably not a playmaker. Unfortunately for the Falcons, it has been a long time since their third round draft choices turned into standout playmakers. Dent should make a nice complementary starter either on the outside or inside, but he doesn’t seem to be a guy that can potentially be a building block piece long term.
If I had to guess what the Falcons saw in Dent was a player that was relatively safe prospect that could bring many of the same intangibles to the field that Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas bring, and is adequate insurance in case they lose one or both players. Dent probably doesn’t make the Falcons defense better, but at least gives them a good option to maintain the status quo.