A tie binding each of the four NFC South teams as we approach Week One is concern — albeit varying degrees of it — at the middle linebacker position.
It’s a somewhat uncommon feeling this time of year for the Falcons, Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers, who each had enjoyed long-term stability at the position until not long ago.
Heading into 2011, Curtis Lofton (then a Falcon), Jon Beason (Panthers) and Jonathan Vilma (Saints) were the longtime trusted quarterbacks of their respective defenses. The Bucs were the only team transitioning to a new starter. After a defensive staple in Tampa Bay, Barrett Ruud, was allowed to walk in free agency, the Bucs inserted rookie Mason Foster into the starting spot at middle ’backer and had high hopes that he would become a stalwart.
Flash forward to this year.
After a rough rookie season, Foster is still trying to prove he is the answer, and he’s currently being nagged by a hamstring injury. Foster missed the Bucs’ last preseason game and head coach Greg Schiano said Tuesday he was not sure if Foster would play in Week One.
The Bucs are not alone in that regard — each NFC South club has faced injuries at middle linebacker this preseason and we can only guess as to how many of the four projected starters will be able to play in the regular-season opener, which is 11 days away for the four teams.
The Saints, the defending division champs, are hoping to have Lofton — who left in free agency to join Atlanta’s rivals after feeling disrespected by the Falcons’ contract offer this offseason — ready for their season opener vs. the Redskins. He is stepping in for Vilma, who is facing a season-long suspension stemming from his role in the team’s “bounty” program.
However, Lofton is dealing with a high ankle sprain that kept him out of the third preseason game. He says he will be back for Week One and the Saints — who are already going to be shorthanded at the position thanks to more serious injuries and suspensions — have to keep their fingers crossed that Lofton’s injury will not linger into the regular season.
The Panthers still have yet to see Beason, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in Week One last season, take the field in a preseason game, and he is not expected to play Thursday vs. the Steelers.
The Falcons — a team hungry to get over the hump and make a deep playoff run this season — might have the biggest question mark of all the NFC South teams at middle ’backer.
Atlanta is replacing Lofton with second-year veteran Akeem Dent, who is going to serve as a two-down run stuffer, coming off the field in nickel situations, after contributing on special teams last season.
The Falcons were finally was able to get an extended look at Dent play against a first-team offense in the third preseason game vs. the Dolphins. He had missed time while recovering from a concussion sustained in the preseason opener.
In moving forward with Dent as their man in the middle, the Falcons knew the gamble they were making. Making a Super Bowl run with such an inexperienced player at the position is a difficult proposition.
The 2005 Seahawks are the last team to start a first-year player at middle linebacker in a Super Bowl — then-rookie Lofa Tatupu, who coincidentally was competing to become the Falcons’ starter at middle linebacker before he suffered a season-ending pectoral tear while working out in July, made the Pro Bowl that season.
You have to go back several more seasons to find the last first-year starting middle linebacker to start for a Super Bowl-winning team, though Raiders then-rookie MLB Napoleon Harris started in his team's Super Bowl XXXVII loss to the Buccaneers in 2002.
The 1999 Rams had London Fletcher, who played in every game, but started only one as a rookie in the prior season.
Then again, we only need to look to last season’s Giants for an example of a team achieving the ultimate success despite instability and getting by on the cheap at middle linebacker.
The Giants rotated through the triumvirate of Greg Jones (five starts at MLB), Jacquian Williams (one start at MLB) and Mark Herzlich (two starts at MLB) as their starters last season before veteran utility man Chase Blackburn held down the job for the final stretch of the regular season and the playoffs.
In a copycat league, it’s easy to see why the the Falcons took the approach they did this past offseason in not investing big bucks to try to avoid the MLB uncertainty confronting teams in the NFC South today.