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.”
Rams tight end Brody Eldridge, who also played with Lofton at OU, said the key factor is a unique work ethic.
“Curtis has a tremendous drive to be great,” Eldridge said. “This is what he’s always wanted. This was his dream. And if it’s something he wants he’s going to get it.”
Lofton signed a five-year deal worth $27.5 million. He has a sixth year player option worth an additional $6 million. Lofton received a $5 million signing bonus but the deal counts only $1.7 million against the Saints’ salary cap this season.
“I wanted to stay with the Falcons. All I wanted was a fair deal. That didn’t work out,” Lofton said. “Five or six teams called my agent. After visiting the Saints it felt like family, so I canceled all my other visits. I’m excited. They won a championship a few years ago.”
Proving people wrong
Playing with a chip on his shoulder has motivated Lofton his entire career.
Some questioned whether the small-town kid could excel at an elite Division I program.
After a standout career at OU — he compiled 156 tackles in his final season — some questioned whether Lofton made a mistake declaring early for the NFL Draft following his junior season. His decision proved wise when he was the 37th overall selection.
In the NFL, some questioned whether Lofton would be relegated to being a run stuffer. During his rookie season, he came off the field on passing downs. But in the past three seasons, Lofton was on the field for 90 percent of the Falcons’ defensive plays.
“They’ve always said I was too small or not fast enough,” Lofton said. “I just use that as motivation to improve each and every day. You can never be satisfied.”
Lofton’s primary individual goal is to make the Pro Bowl, an honor some feel is long overdue. New Orleans’ only Pro Bowl linebacker the past dozen years was Vilma in 2009 and 2010.
“I love my job. I love what I do,” Lofton said. “I’ve been knocking on that Pro Bowl door. I’m hoping this is the year I knock it down.”
Lofton has purchased a home in the Big Easy. He remains in contact with his Kingfisher roots, including his grandmother, who helped raise him in a small trailer by the railroad tracks.
“I go back at least once or twice a year to go see my old coaches and teachers,” Lofton said. “The entire town pretty much has my cellphone (number). I get calls and texts after games. And I always keep up with my Sooners.”
As for Bountygate, Lofton said players have turned the page. If Vilma’s suspension is reduced, both have said they’re willing to move to outside linebacker.
“Inside the locker room, our only focus is football,” Lofton said. “We feel we can make a run to the championship game. The offensive coordinator that took over last year after Coach Payton had his injury is back, led an offense that broke records. Steve Spagnuolo’s resume speaks for itself.
“We’ll miss those players and coaches but we still have a lot of talented players. That’s one reason I wanted to come to this team. I feel we have a legitimate chance to play in the Super Bowl. ”
AP contributed to this story