Falcons' Dent to make debut as NFL starter
SEP 05, 2012 4:59p ET
Only one spot on the field does not: middle linebacker, where Akeem Dent, in his second season out of the University of Georgia, will make his NFL debut as a starter on Sunday in Kansas City.
“I have butterflies each game,” said Dent, an indication that this game would not be terribly different. “It’s just anticipation and ready to get out there and play a football game. It’s more excitement than anything.”
In an organization whose philosophy is built on drafting and developing players, the Falcons are not shy about starting rookies or players without previous NFL experience, which is relatively common in a league with so much player turnover from season to season. Last season, the Falcons broke in several new starters, including rookie wide receiver Julio Jones and third-year right guard Garrett Reynolds.
On 2010’s 13-3 team, William Moore, without any prior experience, started 15 of 16 games at safety and Sean Weatherspoon, a first-round pick that year, started six. The year before that safety Thomas DeCoud started all 16 without any previous starting experience. Of course, 2008 ushered in rookie Matt Ryan as a starting quarterback, beginning a trend that changed the league.
But five seasons into their program, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith have created the kind of depth that allows Smith to refer to the team’s roster as “mature.” By comparison, Cleveland announced a 53-man roster with 15 rookies, a number of whom are being asked to play key roles.
Dent represents something of an outlier on the Falcons’ roster. He went out early in the team’s first preseason game with a concussion and then missed the next one, which new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan considered only a minor setback in Dent’s learning curve. Consequently, Dent didn’t register his first tackle until the third preseason game. He had three solo tackles in that game against Miami and then posted six solo and two assists in the finale against Jacksonville, in what no doubt represented additional action for him to compensate for lost time.
Nonetheless, Dent potentially could stand out as a weak link for the Chiefs’ coaching staff to try and test.
“Sometimes they do,” Weatherspoon said of opposing coaches’ targeting a young player. “I think if you leave a trail on tape, they will. So, I mean, 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 an aspect going against him. But I think he’ll be fine and ready for it.”
While Smith has been circumspect about announcing the starters at certain positions, notably right guard, cornerback and punt returner, he had no qualms on Wednesday about saying that Dent would start on Sunday. Originally, middle linebacker had shaped up as one of the team’s top position battles entering camp, but free agent Lofa Tatupu suffered a torn pectoral muscle, ending his season, and the Falcons brought back veteran Mike Peterson, but not to compete with Dent for the starting job.
Asked if he would offer Dent any special advice, Smith seemed to emphasize staying loose.
“Yeah: Do what you’ve been doing your whole career and relax,” Smith said. “He’s been a guy that’s played already. He’s played special teams, so it’s not like it’s going to be his first time out there on an NFL field and he’ll have to go out there and relax and let the game come to him. He’s been playing it a long time. I’ll tell him, ‘It’s still 120 yards long, 53-and-a-third yards wide and every 10 yards there’s going to be a first down made when they earn it and go out and play.’
“I don’t anticipate he’ll have any issues.”
Weatherspoon echoed that message of Dent’s not overthinking his situation.
“We haven’t talked too much about it,” Weatherspoon said. “I haven’t given him advice about his first game, but he’s had a chance to get his feet wet. Last year he played kind of late in some games and throughout preseason he’s had a chance to get his feet wet in preseason games.
“I won’t talk to him too much because that’s the thing – you talk to a guy too much and you get him all riled up, getting him all thinking. I think it’s best if he goes out there and does what Akeem does and that’s play downhill and be the spark for our defense.”
Somewhat alleviating Dent’s issues is that he is more likely to play only two downs. Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas look to be the linebackers who remain in the nickel defense, which the Falcons will probably employ more often with Nolan as defensive coordinator and the Falcons having upgraded the cornerback position with the acquisition of Asante Samuel.
Also in Dent’s favor is that in the Chiefs, he doesn’t exactly face an offense as complex and accomplished as one like New Orleans’. Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, 37, is in his first season after being in the same position with Miami last season and in Cleveland for the previous two, also as offensive coordinator. That will change in Week 2 when perhaps the league’s most cerebral quarterback, Peyton Manning, visits with Denver.
For now, Dent says he’s trying not to worry about what the game means in terms of a personal achievement.
“I don’t really think about it like that,” he said. “I just think about it as another football game.”
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