If not every day, but every few days over the course of training camp I plan to post some scouting reports of some of the Falcons top (or at least more notable) players. I’m kicking things off with the centerpiece of the Falcons defense, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton.
Pros: Is physical, hard-hitting run defender that shows nice range in the middle of the field when defending the run because he has a good nose for the ball. Does his best work when he’s allowed to attack upfield at or near the line of scrimmage. Shows good passion and exuberance for a physical defensive style, making him a natural for a team leadership role.
Cons: Needs work in coverage, and lacks awareness when playing in space. Will lose sight of some of his assignments, and doesn’t consistently get good depth when working in zone coverage. Doesn’t have the hips or quickness to match up with opposing receivers over the middle and is rarely in position to make a play in the passing game. Despite good range, doesn’t have great speed and doesn’t make many plays vs. the run outside the hashmarks.
2010 Outlook: Lofton has already begun distinguishing himself as one of the up and coming run-defending middle linebackers in the league. But he still has a ways to go in coverage, and how much improvement he shows this season will be a huge indicator of his long-term success in both Atlanta and the league.
Few NFL teams can afford to have a two-down middle linebacker, especially when said middle linebacker is as valuable a run defender as Lofton is. Opposing teams can take advantage of this by forcing the Falcons defense into nickel situations with multiple receivers and deciding to run the ball if/when Lofton is off the field. This is what occurred quite a bit when Ed Hartwell was manning the middle in Atlanta during the few times he was healthy, drastically reducing his overall effectiveness.
And while Lofton may never be a great pass defender, too often in 2009 he proved to be a liability and coverage. At the very least that needs to change. The key for him will be consistency. Showing better awareness, discipline, fundamentals, and technique can go a long way to improving his ability in coverage. He’ll never have the physical tools that would allow him to be put on an island against a player such as Reggie Bush out of the backfield, but he can make up for that deficiency by playing smarter and more instinctual. And these are things that should improve with greater commitment, attention to detail, along with added experience. Like Lofton, past Falcon Keith Brooking was deficient in man coverage, but was solid in zone coverage. That allowed Brooking to record 11 interceptions over a five-year span during the prime of his career in Atlanta.
In Summary… If Lofton can begin to come as adept as Brooking in coverage, coupled with his vastly superior run-defending he should become one of the top middle linebackers in the NFL. It’s no secret that Mike Smith wants to develop a defense in Atlanta that is as physical and menacing as some of those defenses he coordinated in Jacksonville and assisted with in Baltimore. Lofton has a very good chance of being one of the core foundation pieces of that type of defense that can potentially develop over the coming years. The addition of Sean Weatherspoon should help in that regard, because both are passionate defenders that will only feed off each other.