Jan 1, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons Mlinebacker Curtis Lofton (50) returns an interception for a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Josh D. Weiss-US PRESSWIRE

Curtis Lofton on the radar of the New Orleans Saints; Jonathan Vilma likely out


Entering the offseason it was clear what the New Orleans Saints wanted to focus on in the upcoming NFL Draft, defense.

However, with the cloud of “Bountygate” hovering over the franchise and the large possibility of losing draft picks, the team needed to do what they could to address their defensive needs through free agency even with limited cap space.

Wednesday, guard Carl Nicks departed the Big Easy and “took his talents” to Florida, joining the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saints wasted absolutely no time in replacing Nicks.

They had former Baltimore Ravens guard Ben Grubbs already flying in for a visit with the team as they braced for the possibility of losing Nicks.

Grubbs met with the team Wednesday, which during that time he passed a physical. He ended up spending the night in New Orleans as the Saints worked hard on completing a deal.

By Thursday afternoon, the deal was announced, a five-year $36 million contract.

It appears that the New Orleans Saints have wasted no time addressing their defensive situation either, which I’m sure new defensive coordinator Steve Spanguolo is thrilled.

The Saints have one of the worst linebacking corps in the league and have underperformed in every aspect.

With defensive captain Jonathan Vilma showing signs of age and playing in only 11 games in 2011 due to injury, he may in fact be looking to be replaced.

Vilma, the 29 year old middle linebacker out of the University of Miami, played in his eighth season in 2011, showed he was replaceable during his absence when linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar filled in and outperformed him.

In 2011, Jonathan Vilma recorded just 54 tackles and had one forced fumble, which was the second worst season in his career next to his 2007 effort with the New York Jets when he played in just seven games.

Lets not forget that there is likely a suspension coming for Vilma due to the “Bountygate” penalties.

That makes it an even higher possibility that he may be on his way out.

Jo-Lonn Dunbar is currently a free agent, but it’s highly likely that the Saints will make a play to re-sign him due to the fact he was the one bright spot among the linebackers and he won’t cost a fortune.

The possibility that Jonathan Vilma would be on the chopping block has been floating around forums and websites for awhile now due largely to the fact that he has a $6.6 million cap hit for 2012 and releasing him could free up $3.4 million in cap space.

Linebacker Scott Shanle is another person that may be on his way out, even though Spagnuolo is a fan of him.

He had a productive season in 2011 as far as Saints linebackers were concerned, with 69 tackles, a sack, forced fumble, and an interception.

Shanle is set to have a cap hit of $2.25 million ($1.05 in base salary), not to mention he is 32 years old.

It seems as if the New Orleans Saints may agree with the possibility of Vilma being replaced.

Jason La Canfora of the NFL Network announced today that former Atlanta Falcons inside linebacker Curtis Lofton would be visiting the New Orleans Saints this weekend.

The team also flew out former Seattle Seahawks linebacker David Hawthorne for a visit on Thursday.

Denver Broncos linebacker Joe Mays is also reportedly visiting the team this weekend.

If the Saints can somehow snag Lofton from the two other teams that have shown interest in him, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and possibly the Philadelphia Eagles, he would immediately boost their linebacker play.

Lofton, who is younger than Vilma at just 25 years old, had an excellent season in 2011 with the Atlanta Falcons when he recorded 147 tackles, one sack, a forced fumble, and two interceptions.

He made his debut in the NFL in 2008 out of the University of Oklahoma when he was selected in the second round (37th overall) by the Atlanta Falcons.

Lofton became a starter in his rookie season and ranked fourth on the team with 94 tackles (67 of those solo).

Since entering the NFL he has a shocking 492 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions, fifteen pass deflections and seven forced fumbles.

Despite his great production and recording over 100 tackles in three of his four seasons, he has never made it to a Pro Bowl.

Curis Lofton is a well-built 4-3 middle linebacker, who has exceptional instincts and is a violent, explosive tackler.

Lofton reads and reacts quickly to plays, with a great feel for the game and has excellent ball instincts.

He has good awareness in coverage, though sometimes he is late dropping into the zone, which is an issue because he doesn’t have a great deal of speed.

Lofton always hustles and is assignment-sound. He’s a very tough linebacker who should have absolutely no issue stepping in to replace Vilma’s defensive play calling.

He’ll immediately step into the leadership role.

There has been some knee problems, however.

Prior to 2011 he underwent surgery on both knees in the offseason, but clearly that didn’t effect his game.

All in all, Lofton is a low risk factor who is going to bring his maximum effort and is among the better run-stuffing linebackers in the league.

He’s not going to make many splashy plays, but he’s very reliable and has great intangibles.

I look for the New Orleans Saints to make an offer immediately and jump on Curtis Lofton within 24 hours of his visit, like with Grubbs, should he not be signed before arriving this weekend.

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Tags: 2012 NFL Free Agency Atlanta Falcons Baltimore Ravents Ben Grubbs Bountygate Carl Nicks David Hawthorne Denver Broncos Jason La Canfora Jeff Duncan Jo-Lonn Dunbar Joe Mays Jonathan Vilma Kevin Spain Mike Triplett New Orleans Saints NFL Network Philadelphia Eagles Scott Shanle Seattle Seahawks Steve Spagnuolo Tampa Bay Buccaneers Times-Picayune University Of Miami University Of Oklahoma