FLOWERY BRANCH — Lofa Tatupu was more than an insurance policy.
The Falcons signed the linebacker, who did not play last season, before they lost four-year starter Curtis Lofton to free agency. Now that their leading tackler of the past three seasons is gone, Tatupu will compete for the starting middle linebacker job.
“We were very interested in having a guy who was going to add an element of grit, passion, fire and football knowledge that could be very beneficial to our defense,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It was like a total-package idea.”
Tatupu and second-year player Akeem Dent will compete for the starting job in what Dimitroff figures to be a “heated battle.” Both Tatupu and Dent split time with the first-team defense during organized team activities Wednesday.
Tatupu, a Pro Bowl selection his first three seasons in the NFL, did not play last season after the Seahawks released him following a six-year career. He started all 16 games in 2010 after playing only five games in 2009 with pectoral and hamstring injuries.
While there was much speculation that the effects of concussions and other injuries caused Tatupu to miss last season, he insists he was healthy. The phone simply did not ring.
“It wasn’t my choice,” Tatupu said. “I think that’s kind of what happened to veterans across the league. ... But it wasn’t anything to do with concussions or lingering injuries. I was ready to play last season. I got released, like a lot of people did, and I just didn’t catch on with anybody.”
The Falcons signed Tatupu, who also visited the Saints and Titans, to a two-year contract after being assured he was healthy. Tatupu said his body feels “amazing” after his first season without football in 23 years. He also said he is mentally refreshed and ready for the added responsibilities of the middle linebacker position.
“We understand that he was out for a year, but at times players can benefit from being out for a year given the situation that he had,” Dimitroff said.
While Tatupu stayed in shape waiting for another chance, he said he told his wife he would retire if the phone stayed silent. It did not. There is still gas in the tank of the 29-year-old who was a first-team All-Pro in 2007. There is still something to prove.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder because they told me I didn’t belong in this league in the first place,” Tatupu said. “I’m not worried about that. You’re going to always have your critics. I always enjoy listening to what they say and proving them wrong. I’m not on a personal vendetta of any sort, I’m just here to play ball as best as I possibly can.”
During his season away from the game, Tatupu stayed in touch by adding satellite TV and the NFL package. This despite the fact his home was equipped with cable TV.
“As a fan of football, the first few games are tough to stomach because you’re not out there,” Tatupu said. “As a competitor and as a man, you feel like that’s your spot and that’s where you’re supposed to be. That was hard. I’m not going to lie and say that it wasn’t.
“Definitely I had fun calling out plays that I knew were coming and they did come — just from previous years of playing against a team or an offensive coordinator and knowing their tendencies.”
Tatupu had 410 tackles, 10 interceptions and seven forced fumbles during his career with the Seahawks. Competing for the starting middle linebacker job in the Falcons’ 4-3 defense, he will be asked to replace Lofton, who had 351 tackles in his four seasons with the Falcons. That’s fine with Tatupu, who counts hitting as one of the things he missed the most while out of the game.
“That was probably the toughest part, not being able to take your aggression out,” he said. “Just everyday aggression you get to get out in practice. [Being] a regular civilian was kind of tough.”
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