What are the first areas that come to mind when thinking about the areas which have improved this offseason for the Raiders? How about the positions that will be the most important to the team's success?
Usually you start with the quarterback position and if Derek Carr can improve heading into his second season. Then you look at his new targets in Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. And perhaps you think of their new center, Rodney Hudson.
Even when speaking of the defense, the conversation usually surrounds Khalil Mack improving his sack numbers this season with a move to playing mostly defensive end. Or perhaps the improved run defense with the addition of Dan Williams. Or maybe the addition of former Super Bowl MVP, Malcolm Smith.
The addition that seems to get overlooked in all of this, is that of linebacker Curtis Lofton. That's not to say people forget he was signed this offseason. Most people remember he was signed after being cut by the Saints. What people may not quite grasp is just how important his addition is to this defense.
What makes Lofton such a key addition is not because I think he will defy his critics who point to his league-leading 22 missed tackles last season, or that he carried no blame for the Saints having one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season. His addition is key because he brings something to the Raiders they haven't had in a good long time - a true middle linebacker.
His defensive coordinator appreciates what the 7-year veteran brings to the team.
"Curtis has been heaven-sent," said Ken Norton Jr. "He's a guy that is very smart, really tough and around here toughness is a talent. He has the whole front seven, front eight lined up. He has a real strong voice. They all listen to him. He knows exactly where everybody is supposed to be. He knows exactly what he's doing. He's that strong voice, that center of attention. He's that guy that you want to play middle linebacker. Curtis is everything a middle linebacker is supposed to be."
Norton wasn't here last season when the Raiders defense was among the worst in the league with Miles Burris at middle linebacker. Burris was playing out of position due to the head injury to Nick Roach that had him out the entire season. And Burris graded out as the absolute worst linebacker in the NFL.
Burris is merely the breaking point after several years without a true middle linebacker presence in Oakland. The man Burris was replacing wasn't a true middle linebacker. Nick Roach was a converted outside linebacker, who stepped in at middle linebacker spot with the Bears for the final four games of the 2012 season, replacing injured Brian Urlacher. The Raiders, having little to spend in free agency, brought in the only guy they could afford who could step in and do the job.
Roach was replacing Rolando McClain in Oakland after the former top pick finally wore out his welcome in Silver & Black. McClain was drafted in 2010 to be a superstar middle linebacker, but he lacked one crucial quality all middle linebacker must have; leadership. Well, he lacked more than that, but lack of leadership was a product of his overall character issues.
You could say the last time the Raiders had a true middle linebacker was 2009 when Kirk Morrison was in the defensive backfield. He was sent to Jacksonville in a draft day trade following the selection of McClain.
Middle linebacker is called the quarterback of the defense for good reason. He calls out the plays and aligns the defense. It's his most important job. Just ahead of being in the right spot himself. Something Lofton did 142 times, including a league-leading 123 solo tackles. His combined 142 tackles was second only to Panthers All Pro Luke Kuechly (147). Though Kuechly had half as many missed tackles (11) as Lofton.
Lofton may not be the answer to all the Raiders problems, but his presence cannot be overlooked. Especially on a team with a lot of new and young faces along with a new coaching staff. It can impart a lot of confidence on a defense to have an experienced, veteran linebacker manning the middle. A confidence that has been in short supply in Oakland for a while.