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This is the 31st in a series of scouting reports on key players who will become free agents March 13, unless they are re-signed or franchised by March 5.
News: The linchpin of a run defense that was one of the league's best for much of last season, Lofton is a homegrown talent the Falcons would like to re-sign. The team opted to use the franchise tag — which is expected to be worth about $8.8 million for linebackers — on CB Brent Grimes last week, so Lofton will become an unrestricted free agent if the two sides fail to finalize a new deal before March 13.
Notes: Lofton's game is short on flash, but he always has been very dependable and is highly effective vs. the run. He has started all but one game since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2008 and led the team in tackles for the past three seasons, recording more than 100 in each season. Lofton, who will turn 26 in June, had a career-high 147 tackles in '11, which was the fourth-most in the league. Despite his elite production, he never has made a Pro Bowl. He has only three career interceptions and seven career forced fumbles.
Positives: A well-built 4-3 middle 'backer, Lofton has exceptional instincts and is a violent, explosive tackler who plays with no fear. Reads and reacts quickly. He shoots through the gap, gets through the trash and finds the ball. Highly productive. Good awareness in coverage. Always hustles and is assignment-sound. Very tough; will play through pain. A respected leader who commands the defensive huddle with intensity and makes the play-calls.
Negatives: Doesn't have great speed or ideal height and is sometimes late dropping into his zone. Limited coverage skills — a Sports XChange report suggested that new Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan intends to make Lofton a two-down linebacker, taking him out of the team's "sub" packages in passing situations. Has had knee problems. Underwent surgery on both knees in the offseason before the 2011 campaign.
Risk factor: As long as he's not paid like a superstar, the risk will be relatively low. Lofton 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.