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Low-profile injury replacements left to fill big shoes

The SportsXchange

Whether the decrease in conditioning work mandated by last summer's new collective bargaining agreement actually precipitated more offseason incidents this spring, with catastrophic soft-tissue injuries seemingly on the rise, is a certainly a matter of conjecture.

But what cannot be debated is that offseason injuries to players such as Terrell Suggs, Jason Peters, Phil Taylor, Da'Quan Bowers, Lofa Tatupu and others -- with most expected to be sidelined for the majority or all of the 2012 season -- will put plenty of heat on their replacements.

Guys like Atlanta second-year veteran Akeem Dent, who recorded all of one tackle from scrimmage as a rookie in 2011, was to have benefitted from having Tatupu as a mentor. Now Dent, who seems to have the perfect last name if not the experience for the starting job, will be expected to step into the void created by the free agency defection of Curtis Lofton (to New Orleans), who started in all but one of his 64 games for the Falcons since 2008.

"(Lofton) was a great player for us," Dent said, as the Falcons began training camp practices on Thursday. "I can't try to be him. Or I'm not Lofa, either, who had all that experience, and has been to Pro Bowls. Even though we were fighting for the same position, he was helping me sort stuff out, you know? All I can do is to go full-speed all the time ... and try to be consistent with everything I do. I am who I am."

Exactly who Dent is: A onetime strong-side 'backer at the University of Georgia, the former third-round choice, who was moved inside by the Bulldogs' staff late in his career in Athens, has started just 13 games at middle linebacker. In his debut NFL season, Dent played primarily on special teams, and his 19 coverage tackles ranked among the most in franchise history. But Lofton, despite liabilities in coverage that Atlanta coaches opted to ignore, played virtually every down from scrimmage. A season-ending pectoral injury to Tatupu, suffered last week in a weightlifting incident, prompted the release of the veteran and left Dent without the mentor with whom he had worked for much of the offseason.

The Falcons signed 13-year veteran Mike Peterson as insurance -- he played the middle under coach Mike Smith in Jacksonville, knows Dent well from last season, but would not have been rescued from the scrap heap if not for Tatupu's injury -- but they are without the guy they hand-picked, after he didn't play at all in 2011, to provide insurance. Suddenly, the safety net has sprung a few holes and Dent is expected to repair them with little apprenticeship served.

Unlike Lofton, who generally played all three downs, Dent almost certainly will be a two-down defender in the scheme being implemented by new coordinator Mike Nolan. But even if he's projected as a two-down run-stuffer, the youngster still has considerable responsibility for a team that has been to the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, and the learning curve has been accelerated.

"People don't want excuses," said Dent, who could have a difficult time replicating the ability of Lofton to align all his colleagues in the right place, a knowledge that the departed Tatupu might have provided. "We're expected to win. We expect to win. And I've got to play well and fill in the hole."

Because of the aforementioned injuries, Dent isn't the only young player in the NFL facing a tough period breaking in for a high-profile teammate who was incapacitated by an offseason incident.

The league's reigning defensive player of the year, Suggs, who had 14 sacks in 2011 and whose public bravado fits well with the Ravens' mindset, has vowed that he will return at some point this season from his Achilles injury. Baltimore coaches and club officials are privately skeptical but, even if he does,' fourth-year veteran Paul Kruger likely will be asked to fill in for him. Kruger, who could end up sharing time with rookie second-rounder Courtney Upshaw, had 5.5 sacks as a situational player last season, and displayed obvious pass-rush instincts. But the former Utah star, a second-round pick in 2009, has but one regular-season start on his resume.

"You can't dwell over who you're replacing, or try to be something you're not," said Philadelphia offensive tackle Demetress Bell, signed as a free agent after Peters suffered two Achilles tears, and almost certainly will miss the entire campaign. "The pressure to produce is (considerable) enough without doing that. It's your time to step up, and people are counting on you to do it."

Some league scouts feel that Peters, a five-time Pro Bowl blocker, is the premier left tackle in the NFL.

Bell, on the other hand, has only 31 appearances in four seasons in a career marked by injuries. Only once, in 2010, has he played in 16 games. Bell played in just seven contests (six starts) in 2011, and in only eight in 2009. He will benefit some from the fact Eagles' quarterback Michael Vick is left-handed, and thus won't be protecting his blindside, but the shoes he is being asked to fill are more like oversized clodhoppers.

"There's no doubt," Bell said, "people are going to be (scrutinizing) me."

The same can be said for Scott Paxson, who will probably get the first shot in the Browns' training camp at replacing Taylor. Like Suggs, Taylor, who sustained a pec injury, has declared he will return at some point in 2012. Like Ravens' officials, most Cleveland executives are dubious.

The Browns chose a pair of defensive tackles in the draft three months ago, John Hughes of Cincinnati (third round) and Boise State's Billy Winn (sixth round), but Paxson gets first dibs on lining up next to Ahtyba Rubin in a Cleveland defense that is probably better than its numbers from last year.

A former Penn State standout, Paxson originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, has been released four times, and has never started a game. In fact, before last season, when he registered all of his 21 career tackles, Paxson had been in only one regular-season contest.

"None of that matters now," Paxson said in the offseason, when referring to the Taylor injury.

Nor does is matter if offseason injuries this spring mushroomed or if, perhaps because of the pedigree of the guys who sustained them, the increase was only a perception. What matters is that several young, and relatively untested, players will be expected to step in and fill critical spots.
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