In the course of spending his first four years in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons, Curtis Lofton got to work alongside future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez for three of them.
Lofton said he began eating, exercising and resting adequately while playing with Gonzalez from 2009 to 2011, and he considered the 14-time Pro Bowler who retired from the Falcons following last season a mentor.
But the Falcons ultimately opted against re-signing Lofton, and he joined the NFC South rival Saints in free agency in 2012.
Heading into his third season with the Saints and seventh as a pro this year, Lofton has drawn two conclusions: He never again wants to play for a defensive coordinator who’s not Rob Ryan, and he forever wants to beat Atlanta to make them regret letting him depart, his fondness for Gonzalez notwithstanding.
“You never get over the team that let you go,” Lofton, in part, said while speaking with SiriusXM NFL Radio with co-hosts Howard David and James Lofton (no relation). “I always want to beat them. I never want to lose to them.”
Despite the strong sentiments, Curtis Lofton made it clear during his interview that his feelings for Atlanta don’t stem from a place of dissatisfaction in New Orleans — far from it.
With Curtis Lofton as one of his inside linebackers, Ryan in 2013 took over a Saints defense that finished the 2012 season as the worst in NFL history and led it to a No. 4 ranking. No defense since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger had placed so highly the year after being at the bottom of the league, and the turnaround helped the Saints reach the divisional round of the playoffs.
“Rob’s just different — he has a strange way of keeping everybody involved,” Lofton said to the hosts. “It’s fun, it’s vibrant, and we just love Rob.”
He had equally high praise for his teammates, being asked specifically about Kenny Vaccaro — a first-round draft pick in 2013 — as well as Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey, both of whom arrived in New Orleans via free agency this offseason.
Vaccaro lined up in numerous positions last year. He covered slot receivers. He patrolled the deep part of the defensive backfield. He manned the area linebackers usually do, and he sometimes crept up to the line of scrimmage to blitz, landing among team leaders with 79 combine tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble before fracturing his ankle at Carolina in Week 16 and sitting out the rest of the season.
“He … just had a savvy to him,” Lofton said about Vaccaro. “We asked him to do a lot. I’ve never seen a rookie take on as much as he took on from the standpoint of playing safety, coming down and being in the slot. ‘Oh, we need you to be there in the box and be physical.’
“He’s a versatile player; and man, … I’m just glad he’s on my team.”
Lofton said what most excited him about the Saints’ acquisition of Byrd was his track-record of creating turnovers. Byrd’s 22 interceptions are the most among safeties since he entered the NFL in 2009. He has 11 forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries on top of that, offering useful qualities to a defense whose 19 takeaways were the fourth-fewest in the NFL last year.
“He’s a ball player,” Lofton remarked. “And that’s what we love — people that can play ball regardless of measurements and whatever.”
About the addition of Bailey, Lofton said it impressed him that the 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback was attending the Saints’ voluntary offseason workouts that began Monday.
“For a guy like that, who’s had a lot of years in the league, to still come to (offseason workouts) and want to get better and push himself says a lot about him,” Lofton said. “I take note of that. I want to be that guy.”
Nonetheless, he won’t excuse the Falcons’ decision to not renew his playing deal because of his pleasant employment situation.
Ever since the first time he opposed Atlanta in 2012, “I wanted to showcase and make them pay for not giving me the contract that I deserved. … And I don’t think I’ll ever get over that.”
New Orleans is 3-1 against Atlanta since picking up Lofton. The Saints are scheduled to visit the Falcons this upcoming season on Sept. 7 and host them on Dec. 21.
Including the playoffs, he’s started all 34 games he’s played for New Orleans; and the 117 stops — or tackles resulting in failed offensive plays — he’s recorded are the most on the team, according to the website Pro Football Focus.
“He makes us better (when we practice against him). … You don’t face too many tight ends or wide receivers that possess the playmaking abilities he has. I sure hope we sign him soon.”
–Lofton, on Saints All-Pro Jimmy Graham, whom the linebacker doesn’t believe should be classified as either a tight end or a wide receiver but as simply “a playmaker.”
Last season, the final one on his rookie contract from 2010, Graham led the Saints in receiving yards with 1,215 and the NFL in touchdown grabs with 16. He spent most of his time in 2013 lining up out wide for the Saints, but the team handed him a one-year, $7.05 million franchise tag classifying him as a tight end, the position at which he was drafted and has been to two Pro Bowls.
A franchise tag for a wide receiver is worth about $5 million more, and it’s thought he might file a grievance through the players association to be classified as a wideout, given the massive boost in pay that could potentially bring, depending on the decision of a third party.
Graham, though, might not even play under the tag if he and the Saints can agree on a long-term deal before a July 15 deadline.