METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Curtis Lofton admits that as a former Atlanta Falcon, he used to hate the rival Saints.
Yet, instead of delighting in the bounty scandal that cast uncertainty upon Saints' 2012 season, Lofton's reaction was to take New Orleans seriously as a free-agent destination.
"When I actually was thinking about coming here, I took everything into consideration and I played the worst-case scenarios, and for me it didn't matter," Lofton said Thursday after the Saints' wrapped up a second set of offseason practices. "I still wanted to come here and be a part of something. I think the players in this locker room are great and we have a good chance of going to the Super Bowl."
Lofton has been practicing as the starting middle linebacker, the same position he played in Atlanta and the same position held by Saints defensive captain Jon Vilma, who like head coach Sean Payton has been suspended the entire season in connection with the bounty probe.
Lofton signed before the suspensions were handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but figured some punishment was coming. He did not know how severe it would be, though, and came to New Orleans with the idea of playing alongside Vilma, not replacing him.
"When I signed on here, the first person I called and talked to was Vilma," Lofton said. "We talked about playing with each other. He is a great player and there is no replacing a guy like that."
Vilma is appealing his suspension, as is defensive end Will Smith, who for now is slated to miss four games.
Lofton, who signed a five-year contract in March, said he and Vilma would have no trouble playing together. Either of them could play in the middle or outside as needed, he said.
"We were going to work that out," Lofton said. "Our main thing is we wanted to win and get all the best players on the field at the same time and go from there."
In the Saints' defensive system, the middle linebacker acts as the "quarterback" of the defense, calling out signals to teammates and trying to ensure they're in the right spots before the ball is snapped.
Vilma held that role for the past four seasons under the Saints' last two defensive coordinators, Gregg Williams and Gary Gibbs. Now Lofton is preparing to take over that role under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Vilma has been working at Saints headquarters while appealing his suspension. He has not practiced because he is rehabilitating offseason surgery on his left knee, but he has participated in meetings and is sharing his experiences with Lofton.
"I have little questions here and there I bounce off him," said Lofton, who at 25 is five years younger than Vilma. "He's been helping me along the way and making me a better, complete player."
Since being taken by Atlanta in the second round of the 2008 draft, Lofton has started 63 of 64 games, so the Saints had seen a lot of video of him in addition to facing him twice a year for the past four seasons.
Lofton's ability to "burst on the ball, and then his angles to the ball and his closing speed have been shocking," said Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who also coaches linebackers and is acting as head coach during Payton's suspension. "We know what we've got. We've got a thumper. We've got a guy who loves the contact. He's a downhill linebacker."
Vitt said Lofton is "very similar" to Vilma in terms of his ability to process what the offense is doing, decide what the response should be, and communicate that to teammates.
"In order to be a great signal caller and in order to be a great teammate, you have got to put the needs of your teammates above yourself," Vitt said. "That is what Jonathan did a great job of and that's what I see Curtis doing now. He puts himself in the toughest positions to take the burden off his teammates and that earns the respect of his teammates."
Lofton is from Kingfisher, Okla., which he described as a two-stoplight town while he was growing up there.
He said just about every male high school student played football, and he played on both sides of the ball. He was running back who often caught passes out of the backfield, and he also played both linebacker and safety on defense. From there, he went on to star at Oklahoma.
Now his career has taken him to the Big Easy, where things have been anything but easy for the Saints lately. Still, Lofton senses he is in the right place.