With Curtis Lofton gone, it's time to start thinking about who will man the middle linebacker spot in 2012 and beyond. Fortunately, after a cup of coffee, I'm more than capable of stringing together a few thoughts.
I do want to take a moment to thank Curtis Lofton. I can't get too worked up about his post-signing comments, in which he admitted frustration with the Falcons' perception of him as a player and may or may not have taken a few subtle digs at the organization on his way out. While he was here, Lofton was a remarkably consistent run-stopper and a team leader. I'll certainly miss him, and I'll certainly hate seeing him play in the black and gold next season. C'est la vie, I suppose.
I still buy into the idea that a healthy Lofa Tatupu is probably the starter at middle linebacker in 2012, at least through most of the season. He's not incredibly old just yet, and in his heyday he was a remarkably solid linebacker who did pretty well against the pass. The health is the big question, and even if he's gone back in time he's unlikely to be as useful a run-stopper as Lofton was. Given that the Falcons are clearly making the pass a priority, that may not matter.
The other choice is Akeem Dent. A third-round pick last season, Dent was a starter in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts as a linebacker at Georgia, and he brings considerable athleticism to bear. The Falcons like him an awful lot and he could be a complete player, but we don't know much about him outside of his college experience and his quality special teams play.
It's entirely possible that Dent will seize the starting job at some point in 2012—I'm on record predicting a bigger role for him, at minimum—and certainly he looks to have considerably more upside than Tatupu. But I expect the Falcons to roll into the year with Stephen Nicholas, Tatupu and Weatherspoon as the starters.
Of course, both linebackers will look a lot better if the front four can apply more pressure on the quarterback. Lofton had a ton of tackles because opposing players got into open space way too often, which also exposed him to coverage well past his comfort level. His skill plays a huge part there, yes, but those were definitely factors. Getting a better rush should still be priority one.
What do you think?