FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. Up and down the Falcons offense and defense, the units are stacked with players who possess experience as NFL starters.
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. Its just anticipation and ready to get out there and play a football game. Its 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 started wide receiver Julio Jones and right guard Garrett Reynolds.
On 2010s 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 while the year before that Thomas DeCoud started all 16 without any previous starting experience. Of course, 2008 ushered in Matt Ryan as a starting quarterback, beginning a trend that changed the league, as did left tackle Sam Baker.
But five seasons into their program, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith have created the kind of depth that allowed Smith to refer to the teams roster on Monday as mature. In comparison, a team that is building like Cleveland announced a 53-man roster with 15 rookies, a number of whom are being asked to play key roles.
In comparison, Dent represents something of an outlier on the Falcons roster. He went out early in the teams first preseason game with a concussion and then missed the next one, which new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan considered only a minor setback in Dents learning curve of his defense. Consequently, Dent didnt 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, theyll be watching him to see how hes 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 hell 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 teams 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 youve been doing your whole career and relax, Smith said. Hes been a guy thats played already. Hes played special teams, so its not like its going to be his first time out there on an NFL field and hell have to go out there and relax and let the game come to him. Hes been playing it a long time. Ill tell him, Its still 120 yards long, 53-and-a-third yards wide and every 10 yards theres going to be a first down made when they earn it and go out and play.
I dont anticipate hell have any issues.
Weatherspoon echoed that message of Dents not overthinking his situation.
We havent talked too much about it, Weatherspoon said. I havent given him advice about his first game, but hes had a chance to get his feet wet. Last year he played kind of late in some games and throughout preseason hes had a chance to get his feet wet in preseason games.
I wont talk to him too much because thats the thing -- you talk to a guy too much and you get him all riled up, getting him all thinking. I think its best if he goes out there and does what Akeem does and thats play downhill and be the spark for our defense.
Somewhat alleviating Dents 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 Dents favor is that in the Chiefs, he doesnt 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 leagues most cerebral quarterback, Peyton Manning, visits with Denver.
For now, Dent says hes trying not to worry about what the game means in terms of a personal achievement.
I dont really think about it like that, he said. I just think about it as another football game.