FLOWERY BRANCH – Falcons linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who’s trying to make a comeback after sitting out last season, suffered a serious pectoral injury in the weight room this past Thursday and likely will not be available when the team opens training camp on Thursday.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith informed The Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz of the injury early Saturday. The team later reported it on their website.
Tatupu, who was signed to a two-year, $3.6 million contract in March, was slated to compete with second-year linebacker Akeem Dent, of Douglass High and the University of Georgia, for the vacated starting middle linebacker spot. Tatupu received a guranteed $600,000 signing bonus and has a $1.25 million playing time escalator clause in his contract.
Former middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who led the Falcons in tackles with 159 last season, signed with the New Orleans Saints during free agency.
Tatupu is set to see a specialist James Andrews on Monday in order to determine the severity of the injury.
“Pectoralis major muscle tears are relatively rare injuries that occur while lifting weights, particularly when doing a bench press,” according to The Journal of the Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Tatupu’s availability will revolve around whether the pectoral was just strained or if it was ruptured.
If the injury is deemed a grade one strain, he could recover in a few days, according to noted author Jim Brown, who was formerly the editor of Georgia Tech’s Sports Medicine and Performance newsletter. Brown has written 14 books on health, medicine and sports. He contends that a grade two strain could keep a player out two to six weeks. If the injury is ruptured or torn, surgery would be required and full recovery would take months.
Tatupu, 29, a three-time Pro Bowler, didn’t play in 2011 after spending six seasons with Seattle. He was a first-team All-Pro selection after the 2007 season. He contemplated retirement, but elected to give it another try with the Falcons.
The Falcons hoped to receive a boost to their defense if Tatupu could return to the form of his early days in Seattle, when he made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons.
“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 recently about the move to sign Tatupu. “It was like a total-package deal.”
Both Tatupu and Dent split time with the first-team defense during organized team activities and minicamp this offseason.
Tatupu has had injury problems in the past. He started all 16 games in 2010 after playing only five games in 2009 with pectoral and hamstring injuries. It is not known if the current pectoral injury is the same one he hurt in 2009.
There was speculation that the effects of concussions and other injuries caused Tatupu to miss last season. However, he insisted that he was healthy and that there was a lack of interest from teams around the NFL.
The Falcons were hoping that Tatupu’s body would benefit from the year out of football.
Before the injury, Tatupu was hoping to prove that he still had something left in the gas tank.
“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.
Tatupu had 410 tackles, 10 interceptions and seven forced fumbles during his career with the Seahawks.
The Falcons, who released linebacker Matt Hansen on Friday, are presently thin at the linebacker position. Hansen’s release was termed by the team as a non-football injury. Hansen announced on twitter.com after minicamp in June that he suffered a ruptured patellar tendon and would miss at least the next four months after undergoing surgery.
Also, starting strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas, did not take the field in the organized team activities nor minicamp because of a foot injury. He’s trying to return from a string of injuries that cut his 2011 campaign short.
With Tatupu’s injury and Hansen’s release, the team currently has 88 players available for camp, two below the training camp roster limit of 90. The Falcons will likely fill Hansen’s spot before the players report on Wednesday.
The team recently worked out veteran tight end Daniel Graham, but may now consider bringing in a linebacker.
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog