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Curtis Lofton has big shoes to fill with Saints

Around the League will examine one key figure under pressure on each team heading into the 2012 season. Next up: The New Orleans Saints.

Suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma might be overrated, but he also was undeniably the leader of the Saints' defense. His season-long absence puts a lot on the plate of Vilma's replacement.

Under Pressure

Around the League will examine one key player under pressure on each team heading into the 2012 season:

AFC East
Bills | Dolphins | Jets | Patriots
AFC North
Bengals | Browns | Ravens | Steelers
AFC South
Colts | Jaguars | Texans | Titans
AFC West
Broncos | Chargers | Chiefs | Raiders
NFC East
Cowboys | Eagles | Giants | Redskins
NFC North
Bears | Lions | Packers | Vikings
NFC South
Buccaneers | Falcons | Panthers | Saints
NFC West
49ers | Cardinals | Rams | Seahawks

Under Pressure: Curtis Lofton

1. It's easy to forget that this will be an entirely new Saints defense in so many ways. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who is replacing Gregg Williams, asks a lot of his middle linebackers. Antonio Pierce and James Laurinaitis both emerged as difference-makers while playing under Spagnuolo with the New York Giants and St. Louis Rams, respectively.

Vilma probably won't have a starting job to return to when his suspension ends if Lofton lives up to his end of the bargain.

2. Lofton signed a big deal with the Saints, who knew Vilma was going to be suspended. Interim head coach Joe Vitt calls his linebacker group the deepest he's ever coached. He lauded Lofton's lost weight and ability to change direction in space. Lofton should be an upgrade over Vilma as a tackler and in coverage.

3. Lofton's toughest task will be replacing Vilma as a leader. The middle linebacker is naturally the quarterback of the defense. This Saints group lacks an identity at this point. It's on Lofton to prove he was worth the money (five years for $27.5 million).

4. Lofton was viewed as a good, but not great player with the Atlanta Falcons. They wouldn't have let him leave in free agency otherwise, much less see him go to their biggest division rival.

Expectations will be high for Lofton in New Orleans. He has to live up to the standards of a franchise legend in Vilma. In many ways, it's on Lofton to hold this Saints defense together.

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