Numbers say Lofton every-down linebacker

March, 20, 2012
3/20/12
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There’s a lot of talk out there about how Atlanta free agent Curtis Lofton isn’t a three-down linebacker. At the very least, it’s coming from fans and media members. It also might be coming from teams, as Lofton has been making the rounds, but has yet to sign with anyone.

Maybe new Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan doesn’t view Lofton as a guy he wants on the field on passing downs, and maybe that’s why the middle linebacker was allowed to test free agency in the first place. Maybe other teams are buying into the same theory, and maybe that’s why Lofton hasn’t gotten a big contract.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Lofton
Dale Zanine/US PresswireLinebacker Curtis Lofton, 50, was on the field for all but 10 of Atlanta's defensive snaps last season.
But I’m wondering if this knock on Lofton is fair and accurate. As far as being fair, I’ll admit Lofton isn’t the best cover guy in the league. But I also don’t think he’s a total liability, unless you put him into one-on-one coverage against someone like New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. There are a lot of linebackers that struggle with Graham, and that’s why more and more teams are using defensive backs to cover tight ends. In my eyes, Lofton is average (maybe slightly below average) as a cover guy for a middle linebacker.

That’s why I’m wondering how the perception suddenly became that he’s horrible in coverage. The numbers say Lofton was good enough to be a three-down linebacker for the Falcons the past three seasons. The numbers say he was good enough to be on the field for more than 95 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps each of the past three seasons.

I went back and looked them up. Lofton played 99 percent (986 of 996) of Atlanta’s defensive snaps last season. In 2010, Lofton was on the field for 933 of Atlanta’s 977 defensive snaps (95.5 percent). In 2009, Lofton participated in 986 of 1,034 defensive snaps (95.4 percent). The only season he wasn’t a three-down linebacker was 2008. That’s when Lofton was a rookie, and the Falcons also had Keith Brooking and Michael Boley. That season, Lofton played in just 55.6 percent (573 of 1,030) of the defensive snaps. But, after that season, Boley and Brooking were gone, and Lofton was elevated to full-time status.

Whatever Lofton lacks in coverage skills, I think he makes up for with his ability as a run-stuffer and a leader. Maybe he doesn’t deserve to be paid like a top-five linebacker. But I think Lofton is a linebacker who can be on the field most of the time.

The Saints had him in for a visit Monday, and the Buccaneers are keeping an eye on Lofton’s situation (mainly to see if his asking price drops). The Falcons already have moved on by signing Lofa Tatupu, and they have second-year pro Akeem Dent.

But the Saints seem to be looking for someone to replace Jonathan Vilma, and the Bucs aren’t sure if they’re keeping Mason Foster in the middle or moving him to the outside. I say one of these two teams should take a shot on Lofton. He’s an upgrade over what the Saints and Bucs currently have in the middle.

For that matter, I also think Lofton is better than what the Falcons currently are planning on going with at middle linebacker. Maybe an Atlanta return remains a possibility, if Lofton's price tag falls far enough.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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