FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — From the time the Atlanta Falcons made Tommy Nobis their first draft pick in 1966, the franchise always has had a long-term leader at linebacker.
Greg Brezina, Buddy Curry, Jessie Tuggle and Keith Brooking followed Nobis as Falcons fixtures in the middle of the defense.
When Brooking signed a three-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys after last season, it was time to pass the leadership baton. So Brooking reached out to Curtis Lofton.
“I texted Curtis Lofton and told him he’s the guy on defense now,” Brooking said at his Falcons farewell news conference in March.
After Brooking’s exit, the Falcons signed linebacker Mike Peterson, who has played a combined 10 seasons with Indianapolis and Jacksonville.
Peterson’s vocal leadership is difficult to miss, and his experience is crucial following the exits of 2008 starters Brooking and Michael Boley. But Falcons coach Mike Smith says Lofton can’t let Peterson be the only player who sets the tone on defense.
“We want Curtis to be a leader on our defense,” Smith said Wednesday. “That’s something you just can’t anoint. You’ve got to earn it.”
Falcons defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder said Peterson’s presence doesn’t change the team’s long-term plans for Lofton to take a lead role.
“That’s what we’re working toward right now,” Van Gorder said. “He’s conscious of it. He’s working at it, trying to gain that leadership role. He’s very much aware of it, and usually when a player is aware of something they have certain expectations of how that’s going to develop. It’s headed in the right direction.”
Lofton called the offseason text message from Brooking “a great honor.” Brooking was an 11-year starter who led the team in tackles each of the last eight seasons.
“Coming in as a rookie and having Keith Brooking here meant the world to me,” Lofton said. “He’s a class act. I learned a lot from him.”
Lofton started 15 games and had 108 tackles last season to trail only New England’s Jerod Mayo among NFL rookies.
“That’s definitely what we hoped when we brought him in,” said Van Gorder of Lofton, a 2008 second-round pick from Oklahoma. “I thought he had a solid rookie year. Now in his second year he’s got to continue to get better and have more production.”
Brooking called Lofton “a true pro.”
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders and he’s going to be a true star in this league,” Brooking said. “Defensively the sky is the limit for him.”
Brooking said Lofton and quarterback Matt Ryan were on similar footing as the Falcons’ rising leaders. That was substantial praise for Lofton, considering Ryan’s status as the face of the franchise.
“Those two guys on offense and defense can really carry this team for a lot of years,” Brooking said.
Lofton said he’s attempting to embrace the role.
“Definitely. We’re a young defense and so we need young leaders,” he said. “I put it on myself to step up and be one of the leaders. It’s something I look forward to and it’s a challenge.”
Notes: Smith said cornerback Chris Houston will miss Friday’s preseason game at St. Louis with a hamstring injury. Chevis Jackson is expected to join Brent Grimes as the starting cornerbacks. Linebacker Edmond Miles (knee), safety William Moore (knee), and defensive tackle Jason Jefferson (hip) are not expected to play. ... Smith said he expects to give some young players, including rookie defensive tackle Vance Walker, more playing time early in the game. Smith wants to evaluate some of the young players against the Rams starters. ... Rain and lightning forced the team to use its indoor facility for its afternoon practice on Wednesday.