Today is the Fourth of July. It is the day the United States of America formally celebrates its freedom from the rule of England and thus all other countries. It is often known as Independence Day.
Why am I bringing that up in a column about Jonathan Vilma and Curtis Lofton?
Well, Jonathan Vilma has no freedom at this point.
Tuesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell rejected the appeals of the players suspended for their roles in "Bountygate." Vilma is suspended for the entire 2012 NFL season.
It was probably the most underrated free-agent signing of the NFL offseason.
Lofton will step in and play the middle-linebacker spot in Steve Spagnuolo's defense in place of Vilma during the the upcoming 2012 season.
While the Saints may lose a little bit of attitude in the interior of their defense, Lofton makes up for it with plenty of skill and experience.
His presence on this defense will make the Saints better during the 2012 NFL season.
Let's be really honest from the beginning: This statement is quite relative. My grandma could do a better job of scraping off a second-level guard or center to get to a ball-carrier than Jonathan Vilma.
His inability to do so was the primary reason he struggled so greatly in the Jets' 3-4 defense when Eric "The Magnenius" Mangini brought that to New York in 2007.
After watching seven games of Curtis Lofton from 2011 and refreshing myself on a couple Vilma tapes, it was clear that Lofton is much more suited for the current Saints personnel.
Given that Sedrick Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley are both attack defensive tackles (meaning their aim is to get penetration in the backfield more than holding the point of attack), it is imperative that the middle linebacker is able to take on a second-level blocker and shed him to get to the football.
Lofton doesn't do as good a job as one would hope in using his hands to avoid the blocker, but he has good body lean and dips and rips his shoulders to avoid the blocker's hands.
That allows him to get to the ball and make tackles.
Lofton is an improvement over Vilma in his ability to get to the football when he is being blocked.
It should be noted here that both players are instinctive and very good against the run when no one comes to block them.
Curtis Lofton wraps guys up. There is very little doubt about that. Rare is the occurrence that a player doesn't fall fast to the ground when Lofton has the opportunity to bring him down.
Yes, Lofton will occasionally overrun a play or get overextended and attempt a last-hope arm-lunge tackle.
More often than not, though, Lofton uses proper form tackling to take down the ball-carrier. And when he does, the guy gets up feeling the wrath of a big, angry man.
As a Saints fan, you may remember the Week 10 hit he put on Marques Colston at midfield after the lanky receiver caught a pass slightly behind him in mid-air.
Lofton popped him like he was a fly.
Any other skill player on the Saints roster would have been concussed from that hit.
Keep in mind, Lofton is now on this Saints roster. He'll be doing that sort of thing to opposing receivers for the next five years.
At 6'1" and 230 pounds, Jonathan Vilma makes the average human being look pretty tiny.
But stand him next to Curtis Lofton, and Vilma suddenly looks like the tiny one. Sure, Lofton is actually measured at 6'0", but he has an extra 10-plus pounds on him.
More importantly, Lofton looks a lot bigger when comparing the two using the 'ole scouting term "on the hoof."
Lofton takes that title easily.
In a 4-3 defense in which the middle linebacker is asked to a multitude of different things, Lofton's size is ultimately perfect. Vilma is a little small (hence another reason he struggled so much in the 3-4 with Mangini).
Lofton's size will benefit him in Steve Spagnuolo's defense.
Jonathan Vilma isn't a poor pass-coverage linebacker. Curtis Lofton just happens to be much better.
Time after time on film, one notices Lofton perfectly trailing tight ends and bigger personnel down the seam, intentionally trying to bait quarterbacks into making poor choices that he can get a hand on either to intercept or to tip up for teammates.
His instincts in zone coverage are as good as anyone not named Brian Urlacher. While he might be a little more stiff than elite coverage linebackers, he makes up for it with great angles and route awareness.
He knows how to position himself just the right way to avoid a throw coming in his direction and to be able still to react to wherever the throw is made.
Is he perfect? No. He is susceptible to back-shoulder throws down the seam in man coverage and can get burnt in zone coverages by crossing and mesh routes.
But considering the numerous problems the Saints had with linebacker pass coverage a year ago, let's just say Lofton is a major improvement.
Steve Spanguolo isn't going to go hog wild with inside pressures from his middle linebacker. But he will call them enough to keep opposing offenses honest.
Since Lofton is the one who will be executing such pressures, expect them to be slightly more effective than a year ago. Overall, Lofton's sack numbers are pretty similar to Jonathan Vilma's.
There is a slight difference, though, in the way the two attack the quarterback. Vilma will do just about anything to get the quarterback, often skirting his defensive assignment and the proper angles.
Lofton maintains proper shoulder width and leverage to ensure the QB doesn't escape the pocket or his grasp.
This is terribly important, as the Saints face two mobile quarterbacks each year in the NFC South alone, Josh Freeman and Cam Newton.
Lofton's blitzing style will allow for the rest of the defense to have more success on inside pressure packages.
While no one is going to confuse Lofton with Ed Reed or Troy Polamaulu, there is little doubt that he is an aggressive football player who will create turnovers simply by laying shoulders on some unsuspecting targets coming across the middle or by attacking ball-carriers and stripping them clean.
Obviously, Jonathan Vilma has done such things for the Saints in his four years with the team. But he is less likely to continue in that role, considering some of the other factors in play (his size, injury issues, age, etc.).
Lofton is only going to continue to get better as a football player. He is just entering his prime and remains physically strong as can be.
Playing in a system like Spagnuolo's which frees players to play aggressively without losing their responsibilities, Lofton will create more turnovers than he has in his entire career.
And more than Vilma would have in 2012, even if fully healthy for 16 games.
To the average fan, a player's age may seem somewhat trivial. Especially when one is 30, and the other 26.
Make no mistake about it, though, Lofton's having four fewer years on his body is a huge advantage for him and the Saints.
Part of that is undeniably linked to the amount of contact, bumps, bruises and injuries sustained by Vilma compared to Lofton.
Lofton has played in every game in his four-year professional career (64 and three playoff starts). Again, Vilma has been mostly a warrior over the course of his career and relatively healthy.
But his knee injury a year ago caused him to miss five games. And in 2007 he missed nine.
That all screams, "This guy's getting old!"
Lofton's youth and durability are major keys to the Saints defense in 2012. Knowing they have a player who will not come out of the game at any time, all season, is invaluable.
In case it hasn't been made clear yet, Curtis Lofton can do pretty much anything a team wants from a middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense.
For that reason, he never leaves the field. The fact that he can help create an effective pass rush in certain pressure packages is as much a key to his ability to stay on the field as are his incredible pass-coverage skills.
At this point you might be thinking, "Jonathan Vilma played all three downs for New Orleans the last few years."
That is very true. But he likely would not have in 2012.
By the end of 2011, Vilma had become enough of a liability in coverage that Gregg Williams was in no hurry to use him in such a role. (Why do you think he was so hard-headed in his approach to cover Vernon Davis with two different safeties?)
Saints fans don't have to worry about that in 2012. Lofton will be able to stay on the field on every down and will be effective because his skill set is perfectly aligned with Spanguolo's style of defense on every down and in every package.
I can vividly remember sitting in my living room as a college student watching NFL Network's free-agency coverage in February 2009, waiting to hear news of Jonathan Vilma re-signing with the New Orleans Saints.
As the first day of free agency commenced, it had happened. Vilma was re-signed for five years and $35 million.
Fast forward to 2012. I was rather unassuming this time around.
The Saints had finished up a season where they only lost because of their own stupidity; it really wasn't a personnel issue at all.
The Saints' loss at San Francisco in the playoffs was stupid coaching. I'm convinced that had they won that game, they'd be defending Super Bowl champs.
It wasn't meant to be, of course, but I digress. The point is that the signing of Curtis Lofton was much less anticipated by me and most Saints fans. Sure, we were likely all hoping it would happen, but if it didn't, we were ready to approach the 2012 campaign as is (or was prior to the 'Bountygate' suspensions).
As such Lofton signed a little more thrifty of a deal (five years, $27.5 million) to lead the Saints defense, presumably for the next five years, if not more.
If Steve Spagnuolo is still the defensive coordinator in two years, Lofton will assuredly be the middle linebacker. If Spags is the DC in four years, same story. And that is probably true, regardless of who is actually running the defense.
Lofton is a good leader, a great fit and a cost-effective replacement for Jonathan Vilma.
Sorry, Jon, you were great, but it's Lofton's time to roam the middle of the Saints defense now.