Curtis Lofton will replace Jonathan Vilma, the New Orleans middle linebacker who is appealing a one-year suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty scandal.
It's such a hot button topic that Lofton's grandmother, Terrell, was curious why her grandson, a free agent, willingly signed a five-year deal with a team that will play this season without its head coach, Sean Payton, who is also suspended for a year.
“I feel I'm back in a football city,” Lofton said. “Coming from Oklahoma where football is everything, I went to Atlanta where they have so many other things going on. In New Orleans, the Saints are No. 1. Everybody loves the Saints. It's been awesome.”
Lofton, who grew up in Kingfisher and went on to a standout career at OU, said players being punished for reportedly being paid to injure opposing players didn't influence his decision.
“The first person I talked to after I signed was Jonathan Vilma,” Lofton said. “It's disappointing for everything that's happened to him. But my focus right now is to be the middle linebacker of this team and be a leader, do everything I can to help this defense.”
New Orleans opened training camp last week. Despite the whirlwind surrounding the team, expectations remain high after the Saints re-signed quarterback Drew Brees. They also signed several key free agents, highlighted by Lofton, who has started 63 of 64 games.
“Curtis has a knack for being around the football, more importantly making plays,” said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. “He can play all three linebacker positions. We feel he's just entering his prime and can make a significant contribution.”
Saints-Falcons is the most heated rivalry in the NFC South. It's the ultimate compliment when a division rival aggressively pursues a player they face twice each season.
“We know what we've got,” said interim coach Joe Vitt. “We've got a thumper. We've got a guy who loves contact. He's a downhill linebacker.”
Lofton, 26, is viewed as a key addition in New Orleans' efforts to improve a defense that ranked 24th last season.
The Saints offense is explosive, but the defense surrendered 99 “big plays” — runs of 10 or more yards and passes of 20 or more yards.
Besides Lofton, New Orleans also signed linebackers David Hawthorne and former Bethany/Tulsa standout Chris Chamberlain, starters with the Seahawks and Rams. The Saints also have a new defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo.
Spagnuolo, a former Rams head coach, is probably best known for his previous job as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator. It was Spagnuolo who orchestrated the defense that slowed down Tom Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
“From what I've seen in OTAs and minicamp, I love Spags,” Lofton said. “I'm excited to have a chance to play for him. He's going to give you multiple looks, multiple coverages. That's what you need to keep with these high-powered offenses.”
Highly productive career
Selected in the second round in 2008 by Atlanta, Lofton led the Falcons in tackles the past four seasons. He compiled 492 tackles those four years according to NFL.com. The Falcons credited him with 577, including a career-high 170 last season.
“There are times you say, ‘He really shouldn't have made that tackle,' but he does make the tackle,” said Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who played with Lofton at OU. “I don't know how he does it but he's always around the ball. When you watch film, you definitely notice Curtis.”
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