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Sunday Football Notes

Lofa Tatupu back in game with Falcons

Lofa Tatupu finally signed with the Falcons in March. Now, he is battling with 2011 third round pick Akeem Dent for the starting spot vacated by free agent Curtis Lofton.

AP/File

Lofa Tatupu finally signed with the Falcons in March. Now, he is battling with 2011 third round pick Akeem Dent for the starting spot vacated by free agent Curtis Lofton.

It seemed a bit curious.

A Pro Bowl player his first three seasons in the NFL — including an All-Pro berth in 2007 — Lofa Tatupu’s career appeared to be over at 29 when the phone didn’t ring after he was released by the Seahawks nearly a year ago.

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The former King Philip star and son of late Patriots fullback Mosi Tatupu thought about hanging up the cleats, as well.

“At a certain point, I just stopped working out,’’ Tatupu said recently. ‘‘I thought it was over. I was really ready to send those [retirement] papers in.’’

Tatupu had come to a mutual agreement with the Seahawks on his release after he refused to take a paycut.

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Six seasons and 84 starts at middle linebacker after being a second-round pick in 2005, Tatupu was an unrestricted free agent.

He sat out the 2011 season, which got people wondering, including Patriots fans who dreamed of another Tatupu suiting up in Foxborough (at 6 feet, Lofa is a bit small for New England's scheme).

Tatupu finally signed with the Falcons in March. Now, he is battling with 2011 third-round pick Akeem Dent for the starting spot vacated by free agent Curtis Lofton.

“I’m excited about the whole process and just being back playing ball again,’’ Tatupu said. “You’ve got to knock a little rust off, but for the most part it’s second nature, especially as a middle linebacker. You’re supposed to know what everybody is doing. You’re supposed to be the field general. From that standpoint, I really wasn’t taken aback by it. I just come in and do what I do.’’

Most in the NFL thought Tatupu was done when even Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, Tatupu’s coach at Southern Cal, decided not to keep him.

There were whispers that he was suffering from concussion effects or other injuries. It’s true that Tatupu had trouble staying healthy, which was likely a byproduct of his size. Thumb and knee injuries hampered him in 2008. The following season, Tatupu had a hamstring injury, and then a torn pectoral muscle ended his season after five games. In 2010, Tatupu started all 16 games but was slowed by injuries to both knees that required postseason surgery.

Still, Tatupu said he didn’t not catch on last season because of injuries.

“It wasn’t my choice,” said Tatupu, who received a two-year contract from the Falcons. “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 probably had a little pause when Tatupu missed time in organized team activities with a pulled hamstring.

“That’s behind me, we were smart with it, now I’m ready to roll,” Tatupu said.

When training camp begins later this month, Tatupu and Dent will battle for the starting job.

It helps Tatupu a bit that both players are learning the scheme being installed by new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

“We’ve had some growing pains going through it and learning together,” Tatupu said. “Me and Dent, I know it’s been a publicized competition, which it is, but we’ve been learning together and really helpful in each other’s growth process.”

Dent said it’s been helpful to have a veteran to learn alongside.

“We’re learning together, watching film, making corrections,” Dent said. “He’s helping me out a lot in terms of trying to understand everything. A guy like Lofa, that has been to the Pro Bowl and an All-Pro player, it’s been great for me.

“I’m a competitor. I know he’s a competitor also, but at the end of the day it’s good for the Falcons to have two guys that will be ready to play at any point.”

Nolan’s scheme will morph between a 4-3 and 3-4, the latter of which is Nolan’s starting point historically. Nolan said the Falcons’ personnel is still set up for a 4-3, so that will be the predominant scheme. But Tatupu said he likes the variety.

“I just like how much it disguises things that we’re doing,” Tatupu said. “I’m looking forward to that aspect and you can play a little more free that way when you know exactly where your help is going to be and how you want to disguise things to show the offense what they think you’re running.”

At least Tatupu, after a strange year off, is back playing. It might not last long, and he has plans to follow in his father’s footsteps as a coach (Mosi coached at King Philip and Curry College).

“I’ve got to be around the game,” Lofa Tatupu said. “When all is said and done, I’m going to coach or I’m going to do something that has to do with this game, because I just love it so much.’’

On the money

Welker, team low on time

The Wes Welker countdown will be on this week.

The Patriots and the receiver have until 4 p.m. July 16 to complete a contract extension or Welker has to play out the 2012 season under the franchise tag for $9.515 million. His contract can’t be extended until after the last regular-season game.

Both sides have been respectful of each other during the process, but if you read between the lines, owner Robert Kraft has stated the club’s position. Kraft said both sides want to complete a deal, but “it requires intelligence” and “what’s going to happen in the next few years with the cap, you have to have a core group of players that you can plan around as the foundation of your team.”

Basically, the Patriots want Welker to take a bit of a discount to stay with Tom Brady. Welker, meanwhile, wants a deal that guarantees him just below the $21 million he would get paid playing two years under the franchise tag.

You’re talking about a distance in the range of around $6 million in guaranteed money.

That’s not to say the sides can’t agree. The Patriots could very well give in a little bit at the end.

Essentially what they will be asking themselves is this: What kind of year do we think Welker will have?

If the Patriots feel he will repeat his terrific production of a year ago or close to it, then right now they need to figure out what they would do after this season. Welker led the league, by a wide margin, with 122 receptions, and was second to Calvin Johnson of the Lions with 1,569 yards.

If Welker, 31, comes close to that in 2012, are the Patriots prepared to let him walk, perhaps to a team like the Jets, and go forward with some assortment of Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch, Jabar Gaffney, and Donte’ Stallworth?

If they are, then let Welker play out the tag and bid him adieu. He’s not going to sign a team-friendly deal after another standout season.

If the Patriots would be inclined to sign Welker to an estimated $11.418 million franchise tag to keep him out of a Jets uniform, then it makes no sense to have him play under the tag this season. A contract extension now could cut his cap number in half in 2012 and beyond. That savings could be used on extensions for Aaron Hernandez, Sebastian Vollmer, and/or Patrick Chung now, or rolled over onto next year’s cap.

Kraft obviously is worried about a tight cap the next two seasons. It would be a colossal mistake to pay Welker two franchise tags when they could get him cheaper now.

So the Patriots will be debating this week what kind of season Welker will have. Their answer determines their path.

Position unclear

How will it be received?

Speaking of the Patriots and contract extensions, fans breathed a big sigh of relief when the team extended tight end Rob Gronkowski in a deal that benefits both sides in the short term.

The common reaction was, “Now that Gronkowski is done, that leaves the tight end franchise tag available for Aaron Hernandez, since both their deals were due to expire after the 2013 season.”

Not so fast.

Don’t expect Hernandez to accept the franchise tag number at tight end. The argument is there to be made that in his role, Hernandez is more of a receiver than a tight end.

And considering that the receiver tag ($9.515 million) is almost double that of tight end ($5.446 million) this year, you can almost bet that Hernandez and David Dunn, his agent who also happens to represent Wes Welker, will prepare an argument for the receiver tag.

That’s exactly what agent Blake Baratz did in February for tight end Jermichael Finley. It’s not known how much the threat affected the Packers, but they ultimately signed Finley to a two-year contract worth around $15 million.

“We looked very heavily into it,” Baratz said. “We did a full 50-page argument, which we firmly believed was a very sound argument. Now, whether we were going to win or not, I have no idea. And I don’t think the team did and the league certainly didn’t because it was unprecedented.

“You’re dealing with an independent arbitrator. I could see an arbitrator looking at it a lot of different ways. The team is going to argue it doesn’t matter where the guy lines up and what he does, he’s a tight end. Our argument was, when you make an argument on where they are lining up, what kind of stance they’re in, whether they’re running routes and the percentages that Jermichael was doing that. To me, that’s no different than if Wes Welker is in the slot or [Packers receiver] James Jones is in the slot.

“There’s some plays that were kind of in a category by itself, like if he’s lined up as a fullback. Who knows how somebody would look at that? But at the very least, we had a very sound argument.

“The team’s going to say he was a tight end in college, he sits in the tight end meeting room, and he’s a tight end in the media guide, and on websites he’s a tight end. That’s all great, but our argument was what’s the definition of a tight end? To us, [that] says he plays tight to the end, which is the traditional definition.”

Baratz ended up not having to use the data in a hearing.

“I think the Packers believed enough that there was going to be a sound argument there,” Baratz said. “I think that’s part of the reason they were going to do a deal, otherwise they would have franchised him and been done with it.”

Two years at the tight end franchise tag would have been about $12 million. If Finley won his case, two years at the receiver tag would have been about $21 million.

In the end, the Packers split the difference and made Finley, who can be a bit of a wild card off the field, earn nearly all of it in bonuses.

“I still felt and I may have been kind of the minority here at our office, but I didn’t think we were going to win the argument,” Baratz said. “I thought it was sound and I could definitely argue it very well, but I thought at the end of the day, depending on the arbitrator and that it was a huge precedent to set, that it was going to be an uphill battle.”

According to footballoutsiders.com, Finley (152 snaps) and Hernandez (123) ranked 1-2 among tight ends lining up at receiver. The next highest was Jimmy Graham of the Saints (78), and then there was a dropoff to Zach Miller of the Seahawks (32).

Those figures are from the regular season and do not include lining up in the slot.

“When we broke it down every single snap, Jermichael was close,” Baratz said. “It was maybe 53 percent off the line in a two-point stance vs. like 47 percent on the line. If Aaron’s hardly ever in a two-point stance, I think he has a very sound argument.”

ETC.

Charity begins at their home

Kudos are in order for the Gronkowski family.

On Friday, Rob Gronkowski was in Buffalo to help unveil a workout facility at the Renaissance Campus, a home for youth fighting addiction problems. The family’s Gronk Nation Youth Foundation partnered with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the New York-New Jersey High Intensity Drug Area, and the Buffalo Bills Youth Foundation to build the room. The weightlifting equipment was provided by G & G Fitness, which is owned by Rob’s father, Gordon Gronkowski, and money seized by the DEA also was used for the project.

Diane Mancuso, a recreation specialist at Renaissance Campus, told the Buffalo News that working out and exercising is an important part of the recovery process for many of the young people who reside at the facility, as it helps them feel good about themselves again.

Rob and his brothers — Gordie, Dan, Chris, and Glenn — were raised in Amherst, N.Y., outside of Buffalo. It’s been an interesting offseason for Rob, the highlight being the six-year contract extension he signed last month, the lowlight possibly being his appearance on Fox’s dating show “The Choice,” which aired on Thursday.

Ready for takeoff?

There seems to be a lot of buzz building for the Falcons – again. If Atlanta is going to be a threat in the NFC, the play of former Boston College standout Matt Ryan is key. Coach Mike Smith said his fifth-year quarterback is “well ahead of the pace of where we thought he would be. He’s matured quicker than we anticipated, and I think we need to see the continued growth in his accuracy and the continued growth in his decision-making because those are the two traits all elite quarterbacks have.” . . . Rex Ryan is doing away with captains, after naming captains didn’t work out in 2011. While the Jets clearly need leaders and those tend to emerge organically, on another level the decision seems like another knee-jerk reaction from Ryan. Players know who the leaders are; why not let those men be chosen as captains by their peers and give them some ownership of the team, making sure everyone is working toward the same goals? Given everything that’s happened around the Jets this offseason, it’s shaping up to be another interesting year . . . Whether in a poll of NFL players or through a more empirical method, Aaron Rodgers was the league’s top player last season. When NFL Network unveiled its list of the top 100 players for 2011 as voted on by players, the Green Bay quarterback came out on top, and when metrics website Profootballfocus.com produced its list of the top 101 players of last season based on its measures, Rodgers was No. 1 again. In terms of Patriots, while Tom Brady was fourth, Gronkowski 21st, and Wes Welker 23d in the eyes of players, according to Profootballfocus.com, Gronkowski was the best Patriot last season, ranking sixth in the league. Brady was 13th and Welker 24th. Aaron Hernandez, who was not ranked by the players, came in at 39th, according to the website.

Shalise Manza Young of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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