The Falcons want to bring back Curtis Lofton, and that is the right decision. But the Falcons have to be careful that they do not overpay Lofton on the open market, because Lofton is not likely to be a core piece on their defense going forward. The reason for that is the league is increasingly become a passing-oriented league. The rule changes favor offenses, and particularly those that can sling the football. And the issue with Lofton is that this is the weakest part of his game.
There are several reasons why the Falcons should want Curtis Lofton back. Firsly, he is coming off arguably his best season as a pro. While he is not a dominant run defender, he certainly is a good one that is a key reason why the Falcons run defense has been so stout the past three years. Secondly, he is also developing into a leadership role. While Mike Peterson has been the leader of the linebacker corps the past three years, his time in Atlanta is at or nearing its end. At some point in the near future, someone else is going to have to step up and Lofton is as good a candidate as any to do so. While Lofton is a bit of a mild-mannered guy off the field than his more loquacious teammate Sean Weatherspoon, Lofton certainly brings an aggressive, physical disposition on the field. Lofton is a good leader by example type and their two personalities can complement each other in the locker room going forward for young Falcons.
Thirdly, Lofton is also a good middle linebacker. He’s not one of the best in the league, as he’s often portrayed as, but he is certainly above average. He is fairly consistent in playing at a solid to good level on a weekly basis. And that sort of consistency is welcomed on any defense, particularly when it comes to the guy that is at a key position such as the middle linebacker. I’ve heard it said that teams should want to reward the best people as opposed to the best players with long-term deals. And Lofton is certainly one of those players.
But before the Falcons lock Lofton up to a highly lucrative contact, they must realize that there are also some limitations. As stated before, Lofton is not the best pass defender. The league has seen the rise of tight ends and slot receivers in recent years, making the middle of the field a fertile ground for explosive passing attacks. While Lofton has improved there in recent years, he’s not helping the Falcons win that arms race. Playing in space over the middle and being stuck on an island against good receivers is not something Lofton does very well. And if he is to be the rock at the center of the Falcons defense for years to come, he will ever increasingly have to perform in those duties. And while Lofton can continue to improve there, he’s never going to reach a point where he is considered an asset in the pass defense. A comparable Falcon of yesteryear was Keith Brooking who was similarly adequate and effective at times, but often times was a liability when it came to the better players he would find himself matched up with.
There has been talk that the Falcons would prefer that Lofton become more of a two-down player. While that could minimize some of Lofton’s deficiencies in coverage, it will make his value to this football team significantly diminished. Two-down linebackers are a dime a dozen in the NFL because the overwhelming majority of guys currently in the league could be considered such. And therefore, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Falcons to make Lofton one of the higher paid players at his position when he could be lumped into that same group.
Basically, Lofton is a good player, but limited going forward. And therefore, the Falcons need to offer him a good, but limited deal. If Lofton balks at such a deal and can make a more lucrative contract elsewhere, then good for him. That will free up the Falcons to invest money where they need to, which is improving the pass defense.
Lofton does not really help the Falcons there, and as evidenced by the teams that have made deep runs in the playoffs in the NFC over the years (49ers, Giants, Packers, Bears), it behooves you to be very strong in that area. In the case of the Packers, they had a really excellent secondary, while those other three teams had really strong pass rushes that took pressure off their lackluster secondaries.
That is the way the Falcons should go, and any money that the Falcons do not pay Lofton, should be geared towards improving their pass rush up front or getting better in the back half of the defense particularly at nickel cornerback.
This is not to say that the Falcons should not re-sign Lofton. But the market for him based on the deal that D’Qwell Jackson signed in Cleveland (five years, $42.5 million with $19 million guaranteed) is probably too rich for the Falcons purposes. The Falcons could spend that same amount of money on a good pass rusher and/or good nickel corner that will help their defense get better where it needs to (versus the pass) more so than Lofton could.
Ideally, the Falcons could re-sign Lofton to a deal that is less than what Paul Posluszny signed last year with the Jaguars. Posluszny unlike Lofton is a competent coverage linebacker, as well as a good run defender. Posluszny signed a deal that average $7 million a year and had $15 million guaranteed. That should be about the most the Falcons are willing to pay for Lofton, if not slightly above that.
Anything more than that, and they are basically overpaying for what essentially is going to be a role player going forward in Lofton. A potentially very good role player, but still a role player nonetheless. If/when the Falcons defense is one of the best in the league, Lofton won’t be a core piece. At least not anymore so than a player like E.J. Henderson was for the Vikings ’09 defense that made it all the way to the championship game. The core pieces on that defense (Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Antoine Winfield, etc.), all made the Vikings into a really strong pass defense. Henderson, like Lofton is a strong run defender, but often a liability in coverage. And short of the Falcons having a top-tier pass rush to cover up that fact like the Vikings did, it will expose their defense. The Falcons lack that pass rush today, and investing too much money in Lofton can be prohibitive to building that.