The Raiders really missed Nick Roach last season. The veteran middle linebacker missed the regular season with concussion-like symptoms stemming from the preseason, which likely cost him a career.
Roach played every defensive snap in 2013 and was that unit’s clear-cut MVP. Last season’s defense suffered mightily without him. The Raiders didn’t have a legitimate backup plan, forcing Miles Burris out of position for a 16-game slate.
Things didn’t go well, which underscored the importance of having stability in the middle.
That’s why general manager Reggie McKenzie acquired Ironman. Curtis Lofton comes to Oakland on an incredible streak of 112 consecutive games played. He hasn’t missed a game in seven seasons as a pro. He’s made 111 starts since Atlanta selected him No. 37 overall in the 2008 draft.
Lofton is both durable and productive. He has exceeded 100 tackles in six straight seasons, with 144 last year in New Orleans. That’s exactly what the Raiders need in the middle. They need durability and experience, a blue-collar fellow to be an anchor who allows others to make impact plays. That’s a streak you rarely see in football, one the Raiders hope he continues throughout 2015.
Lofton’s track record speaks for itself, but he still feels a need to earn his role as leader.
“You have a reputation that people know who you are, but at the same time, you have to come in and earn everyone’s respect,” Lofton told the team website. “That’s what I’ve been doing. How you earn everyone’s respect is by coming in, studying, knowing the defense, and helping guys get lined up and just working. The work is going to speak for itself.”
It’s extremely early yet, but Lofton has already made a positive impression.
“He’s a veteran linebacker, understands what it takes to perform in this league,” head coach Jack Del Rio said after Tuesday’s OTA session. “He’s doing a good job of providing some of that leadership in the meeting rooms and out on the field.”
Leadership is in Lofton’s job description. The middle linebacker must make checks and calls required to prepare his unit for the coming play, and must know the scheme and its required adjustment as well as anyone. Lofton will be, after all, an extension of the coaching staff in games.
Lofton has a jump start on scheme study, oddly enough, after missing some OTAs with an undisclosed injury.
“If you’re not out there, the best thing you can do is study,” Lofton said in a Tuesday press conference. “The more you study, the more you get a feel for this defense. I played in a defense like this before, so I have a good understanding.”
Lofton must learn a new defense after becoming a salary-cap casualty in New Orleans. He didn’t spend much time in free agency before accepting a front-loaded four-year contract to play in Oakland. Lofton had options, but playing under former linebackers in defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and head coach Jack Del Rio was an attraction.
“To me, that was one of the things that was appealing about coming here,” Lofton said. “You’ve got two linebackers that played in the NFL for many years. That’s a ton of knowledge and experience. As I’m getting older in my career; I’m still young now, but as I get older in my career, that is something I can lean on and learn from. I can pick their brain and they can take my game to the next level.”
In doing so, he’ll improve the play of those around him. That’s a goal in the middle of the defense, an area the Raiders improved. They added defensive tackle Dan Williams up front, Lofton in the middle and Nate Allen at free safety, providing veteran support in areas of tremendous need.
“I think it’s really important,” Lofton said. “That’s where you usually attack, in the middle, especially if it’s weak. I think Coach (Del Rio) did a good job of bringing in guys to secure the middle so that you’ve got to go somewhere else. But, then again, he did a good job of securing talent everywhere else, too. So I don’t know where you’re going to go against this defense now.”