Curtis Lofton

How The Cowboys Could Replace Rolando McClain

For the second consecutive season, Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain will serve a suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substance abuse. In 2015, Dallas only had to survive without McClain for a quarter of the season, but given that McClain is facing a 10-game ban for 2016, the Cowboys will need to more seriously consider how they’re going to make up for the loss of their middle linebacker.

We’ve examined how Dallas might go about finding a replacement for McClain, looking at players already on the Cowboys’ roster, free agents sitting on the open market, and veterans who could be on the roster bubble with their respective clubs. Let’s dive in…

Internal options:

The primary name being floated to replace McClain in the middle is third-year linebacker Anthony Hitchens, whom the Cowboys selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. Thing is, Hitchens was already a starter — he played on the inside in Anthony Hitchens (Vertical)McClain’s absence last year, and then moved to the outside, ultimately seeing action on about half of Dallas’ defensive snaps. So if Hitchens is being counted on to man the middle full-time, including in sub packages, the Cowboys would need to find a replacement at strong-side linebacker, meaning Kyle Wilber and/or Andrew Gachkar could see meaningful snaps after spending most of their respective careers as special teams players.

[RELATED: Updated Dallas Cowboys depth chart]

Gachkar, meanwhile, is another option to fill in at middle linebacker, and he has experience at the position. If chosen, Gachkar would likely be a two-down player, as Pro Football Focus’ grades have shown him to be effective against the run but a liability in pass coverage. The 27-year-old has never been a major defensive contributor — he was forced to step into the starting lineup when the Chargers suffered a variety of injuries at the linebacker position in 2014, but even then, he only played on 36.5% of San Diego’s defensive snaps.

The “wild card” in this race is second-year player Mark Nzeocha, according to Bryan Broaddus of the Cowboys’ website. A seventh-round pick in last year’s draft, Nzeocha only appeared in two games during his rookie season, managing 14 snaps, all of which came on special teams. Extremely athletic, Nzeocha was all over the field at Wyoming, playing safety and all three linebacker positions. His learning curve might be steep, but he clearly has all the physical tools to play the position.

A source tells PFR that the Cowboys are, for the most part, satisfied with the current state of their linebacker room, and are looking forward to have their young players compete for playing time while McClain is suspended. Dallas, says the source, hasn’t shown a lot of interest in scouring the free agent market for substitutes, so one of Hitchens, Gachkar, or Nzeocha might be the favorite to earn significant snaps this fall.

Free agents:

Donald Butler — After selecting Denzel Perryman in 2015 and Joshua Perry in this year’s draft, the Chargers parted ways with Butler, who had spent the past five seasons with the club. At age-27, Butler is the youngest free agent option on this list, but he’s coming off the worst season of his career, having posted just 40 tackles during the 2016 campaign. Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune accused Butler of “losing interest” after receiving a massive extension prior to the 2014 season, so perhaps some other clubs have made that same assessment.Justin Durant (vertical)

Justin Durant — Durant started 12 games for the Falcons last year, but prior to his time in Atlanta he spent two seasons with the Cowboys, so at the very least he’d offer some familiarity with Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli‘s playbook. Versatility is another point in Durant’s favor, as he played mostly inside linebacker with Atlanta and Detroit, roamed the middle during his Jacksonville tenure, and moved between both positions with the Cowboys.

A.J. Hawk — The Bengals signed Hawk to a two-year deal before the 2015 campaign, but despite injuries limiting fellow linebacker Vontaze Burfict to just 10 games, Hawk rarely saw the field, playing on roughly a quarter of Cincinnati’s defensive snaps. Hawk recently told Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer that although he’s aware a club might not express interest until late in camp (or perhaps after the season begins), he’s staying in shape in the hopes of receiving a phone call.

David Hawthorne — Like Durant, Hawthorne offers positional versatility, having seen action at both inside and outside linebacker. In 2015, Hawthorne was shifted to the weak side in favor of rookie Stephone Anthony, but was then benched, declared inactive, and ultimately released after an unproductive season. Still, he’s got 83 career starts under his belt, and would presumably feel comfortable in the middle of the Dallas defense.

Keep reading for more external options that could be on the Cowboys’ radar…

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Curtis Lofton Hopes To Continue Playing

Free agent linebacker Curtis Lofton is without a team as we head into July, but he hopes that will change by August. In an interview on 92.9 The Game, Lofton explained he underwent offseason ankle and knee surgeries, but intends to continue playing in 2016 (Twitter link via Alex Marvez of FOX Sports). Curtis Lofton

[RELATED: 2016 NFL Free Agents]

Lofton, 30, was released in a cap-saving move by the Raiders in March. The Oklahoma product joined the Raiders for the 2015 season after spending his previous seven NFL seasons in Atlanta and New Orleans. Unfortunately, inking a three-year, $18MM deal with Oakland, Lofton failed to make a real impact for the team, starting just nine games and struggling to produce. Pro Football Focus ranked him 94th out of 97 qualified linebackers.

Lofton’s contract stipulated that $3.5MM of his $5.35MM base salary for 2016 would become guaranteed in February, less than a week after the Super Bowl. Reportedly, the Raiders couldn’t cut the linebacker prior to that date because he was unable to pass a physical due to an arm injury and they ultimately wound up waiving him with a failed physical designation.

Now that Lofton has copped to having serious ankle and knee issues in addition to his arm surgery, it seems unlikely that he’ll net a deal with much in the way of guarantees. However, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a team bring him in on a low-risk, one-year deal while there are expanded rosters. After all, Lofton can provide valuable experience for someone’s linebacking corps after playing in a starting role across his eight-year career.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Raiders Release Curtis Lofton

The Raiders have released veteran linebacker Curtis Lofton, according to Field Yates of (via Twitter). As a vested veteran, Lofton will immediately become a free agent without having to first pass through waivers.Curtis Lofton

Lofton, 29, joined the Raiders for the 2015 season after spending his previous seven NFL seasons in Atlanta and New Orleans. After inking a three-year, $18MM deal with Oakland, Lofton failed to make a real impact for the team, starting just nine games and struggling to produce. Pro Football Focus ranked him 94th out of 97 qualified linebackers.

Lofton’s contract stipulated that $3.5MM of his $5.35MM base salary for 2016 would become guaranteed last month, less than a week after the Super Bowl. Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle indicated earlier this week that the Raiders couldn’t cut the linebacker prior to that date because he was unable to pass a physical due to an arm injury. Indeed, Evan Woodbery of the New Orleans Times-Picayune tweets that Lofton was cut with a failed physical designation today.

While there has been some speculation that Lofton moved his guarantee date back, it appears for now that his $3.5MM guarantee will indeed count against the Raiders’ 2016 cap. If any new info surfaces, we’ll pass it along. Even with that dead money on the cap, Oakland creates $2MM in cap savings with the move.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Extra Points: Megatron, JPP, Cardinals, Wallace

The Lions hope to know whether receiver Calvin Johnson will return or retire by Tuesday, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, as his decision will greatly impact how they approach free agency. If Megatron retires or the Lions release him by Wednesday, they’ll open up over $11MM in cap space for 2016. Otherwise, Johnson’s $15.95MM base salary and $24MM-plus cap number will go on the team’s books this year.

Here’s more from around the NFL, including some intriguing notes on pending free agents:

  • There’s “optimism” that the Giants will be able to re-sign defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, reports ESPN’s Dan Graziano, who adds that the club has offered JPP a one-year deal. Other possible suitors are “hesitant” to offer Pierre-Paul a long-term pact, per Graziano. However, there’s an “aggressive” market for his services, writes Jordan Raanan of Thus, it’s hard to believe he’d have to settle for a one-year deal.
  • If Pierre-Paul leaves New York, he could go to the Cardinals. They’ll pursue JPP, Mario Williams and the previously reported William Hayes, according to John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7 (Twitter link).
  • The Vikings reportedly wanted to bring back wideout Mike Wallace at a reduced cost as of last Friday, but Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports “would be shocked” if he isn’t released by Wednesday (Twitter link). The Vikings will save $11MM if they part with Wallace.
  • The Jets and Ryan Fitzpatrick are the best fit for one another, opines the New York Daily News’ Manish Mehta, who expects the two to renew their relationship. Mehta lists a two-year deal with $14MM in guarantees as the floor for Fitzpatrick’s next contract, adding that the ceiling on guarantees could stretch to $18MM.
  • The Raiders are looking for a replacement for inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, according to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle (Twitter link). Last month, $3.5MM of Lofton’s $5.35MM base salary for 2016 became guaranteed. The Raiders had to pay it because Lofton had an arm injury at the time, per Tafur, and a team isn’t allowed to release a player if he’s hurt when he’s due guaranteed money.
  • Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette examines the Steelers’ need for a cornerback, suggesting this year could be the first time since 1997 that the team uses a first-round pick on a corner.

Zach Links contributed to this post.

Brees, Haden, Others Get Salary Guarantees

Several NFL players are on contracts containing language stating that they’ll get a full or partial salary guarantee for the 2016 season if they remained on their respective teams beyond the third day after this year’s Super Bowl. That third day came and went on Wednesday, and while not every player with a guarantee deadline locked in that money – Nate Allen was cut by the Raiders, while Dannell Ellerbe reworked his deal with New Orleans – most of those guys had their contracts remain untouched.Drew Brees

Per Joel Corry of, here are the players who were assured of full or partial salary guarantees for 2016 after remaining under contract on Wednesday:

  • Drew Brees, QB (Saints): $10.85MM of $19.75MM base salary for 2016 now fully guaranteed. This gives Brees a little extra leverage in contract negotiations with the Saints, but doesn’t drastically change his outlook — he’ll be back in New Orleans next season, likely with an extension in hand.
  • Joe Haden, CB (Browns): $10.1MM base salary for 2016 now fully guaranteed. Concussion issues wiped out most of the 2015 season for Haden, but he was in no real danger of being cut before this amount – previously guaranteed for injury only – became fully guaranteed.
  • Jairus Byrd, S (Saints): $7.4MM base salary for 2016 now fully guaranteed. So far, Byrd hasn’t exactly lived up to the massive deal he signed with New Orleans two years ago, but there’s still so much dead money left on it that it makes sense for the team to keep him around.
  • Curtis Lofton, LB (Raiders): $3.5MM of $5.35MM base salary for 2016 now fully guaranteed. Lofton’s first year in Oakland certainly wasn’t his best, and the Raiders could’ve cleared his entire salary from their books if they’d cut him along with Allen, but the team has so much excess cap room that it can afford to bring back the veteran linebacker and hope for a better season.

While there are a few more contract guarantees to keep an eye on in February, including several for Seahawks players, most guarantee dates arrive in March, at – or shortly after – the start of the new league year. So we shouldn’t expect to see many teams cutting players to narrowly beat those guarantee deadlines for at least a few more weeks.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Saints Notes: Evans, Spencer, Jordan, Draft

Although he was the last head coach to arrive at the NFC coaches’ breakfast in Phoenix this morning, Sean Payton of the Saints may have dropped more noteworthy tidbits for reporters in Arizona than any other NFC coach. Let’s dive in and round up the highlights, via Larry Holder, Nick Underhill, Ian Rapoport, and Mike Garafolo (all links go to Twitter)….

  • The Saints explored the possibility of trading both Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, since it wasn’t feasible to keep both high-priced guards. With Grubbs having been sent to Kansas City, Evans is poised to stick around, but his contract may still be addressed and modified, per Payton.
  • There were “four or five teams” talking to the Saints about a potential Jimmy Graham trade, including the Dolphins. Asked about whether last year’s positional battle or contract negotiations involving Graham played a part in the team’s decision to trade the tight end, Payton replied, “Zero. None.” The head coach added that he has spoken to Drew Brees about the deal, and the quarterback handled it fine.
  • Payton confirmed that free agent DE/OLB Anthony Spencer visited the Saints on Monday, but said there’s nothing to announce at this point.
  • Payton likes this year’s draft class for wide receivers, and believes the team will take at least one or two defensive linemen or edge defenders in the draft. Adding a tight end, either in free agency or the draft, is also a priority.
  • General manager Mickey Loomis has begun discussions on a potential long-term contract extension for defensive Cameron Jordan.
  • Payton believes there’s a good chance Travaris Cadet would have re-signed with the Saints if the club hadn’t added C.J. Spiller in free agency. The head coach added that he had dinner in Los Angeles with Reggie Bush to discuss a potential reunion before signing Spiller, since the team expected Spiller to “end up somewhere else at a higher number.”
  • Asked about finding a successor for Brees, Payton said he thinks the veteran quarterback has “a lot of good football left,” but he’s open to drafting a QB if there’s value to be had. However, Payton dismissed the idea of trading up for Marcus Mariota, saying that “won’t happen.”
  • Prior to releasing him, the Saints wanted Curtis Lofton to make some adjustments and improvements to his game, and to take a pay cut, but it didn’t pan out.

Raiders Sign Dan Williams, Curtis Lofton

MARCH 13: Lofton’s deal is for three years and carries a total value of $18MM ($10MM in guarantees), according to ESPN’s Bill Williamson (via Twitter). Tom Pelissero of USA Today tweeted earlier Friday that Williams’ contract is worth $25MM over four years. It includes $15.5MM in guarantees.

MARCH 11: The Raiders missed out on a few of their top targets in the early wave of free agency over the weekend, but the team is poised to add two solid defenders to its roster, Michael C. Wright of reports. According to Wright (Twitter link), the Raiders are signing defensive tackle Dan Williams and linebacker Curtis Lofton. The terms of the deals are not yet known.

Lofton, 28, was one of the most dependable and durable pieces on the Saints’ defense in recent years, starting all 48 regular season contests for the team since arriving in New Orleans in 2012. In 2014, he racked up 145 tackles to go along with a forced fumble. However, while his stats looked solid on the surface, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him as a bottom-five inside linebacker, out of 60 qualified players. Money was tight for New Orleans and Lofton no longer looked like he was worth his salary, so the Saints cut him loose earlier this week.

The Raiders were heavily connected to Terrance Knighton, one of the top defensive tackles on the open market this offseason, but they turned their attention to Williams once their appetite for Pot Roast had waned. We learned Tuesday afternoon that Williams had a deal in place with a team, and we now know that his home will be with the Raiders. Williams was also linked to the Lions, Giants, and Washington at different points in recent days. The 27-year-old Williams, who ranked as the No. 33 free agent on PFR’s Top 50 list, has started 40 games in his five-year career, all with the Cardinals, who selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft.

Contract Details: Maclin, Thomas, Hughes, Odrick

Here are a few details on some of this week’s noteworthy new contracts:

AFC deals:

  • Jeremy Maclin, WR (Chiefs): Five years, $55MM. $22.5MM fully guaranteed. $12MM signing bonus (Twitter links via Joel Corry of
  • Julius Thomas, TE (Jaguars): Five years, $46MM. $21MM fully guaranteed. $28.3MM in first three years (Twitter link via Albert Breer of the NFL Network).
  • Jerry Hughes, DE (Bills): Five years, $45MM base value. $7MM signing bonus. $11.775MM fully guaranteed. $1MM annually in sack-based incentives (Twitter links via Corry and Tom Pelissero of USA Today).
  • Jared Odrick, DL (Jaguars): Five years, $42.5MM. $22.5MM guaranteed. $5MM roster bonus in 2015 (Twitter link via Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun).
  • Brandon Flowers, CB (Chargers): Four years, $36.4MM base value. $20.5MM guaranteed. $8MM signing bonus. $2.25MM first-year cap hit (Twitter link via Wilson).
  • Curtis Lofton, LB (Raiders): Three years, $18MM base value. $10MM guaranteed. $6.5MM in first year, including $3.5MM roster bonus (Twitter links via Pelissero and Wilson).
  • Kendall Langford, DT (Colts): Four years, $17.2MM base value. $2.5MM guaranteed (Twitter link via Mike Garafolo of Fox Sports).
  • Brian Hoyer, QB (Texans): Two years, $10.5MM base value. $3.75MM roster bonus to be paid this month. $5.25MM annual cap hits (Twitter link via John McClain of the Houston Chronicle).
  • A.J. Hawk, LB (Bengals): Two years, $3.25MM base value. $500K guaranteed (Twitter link via Pelissero).

NFC deals:

  • Torrey Smith, WR (49ers): Five years, $40MM base value. $8MM signing bonus. $8.75MM fully guaranteed. $3.6MM first-year cap hit (Twitter links via Corry).
  • Bryan Bulaga, T (Packers): Five years, $33.75MM base value. $8MM signing bonus. $3.6MM first-year cap hit (Twitter links via Rob Demovsky of
  • Stephen Paea, DT (Washington): Four years, $21MM. $7.85MM guaranteed. $5MM signing bonus (Twitter link via Wilson).
  • Corey Peters, DT (Cardinals): Three years, $9MM base value. $5.75MM guaranteed. $2MM signing bonus (Twitter links via Wilson).
  • Justin Durant, LB (Falcons): Three years, $10.8MM base value. $4.5MM in 2015. $3MM available in incentives (Twitter link via Pelissero).
  • Dwan Edwards, DT (Panthers): Two years, $4MM base value. $1MM signing bonus (Twitter link via Wilson).
  • Sean Weatherspoon, LB (Cardinals): One year, $3.58MM base value. $1.25MM signing bonus (Twitter link via Wilson).
  • Major Wright, S (Buccaneers): Two years, $3MM base value (Twitter link via Pelissero).

Raiders Sign Lee Smith

WEDNESDAY, 4:36pm: The Raiders officially announced (via Twitter) the signing of Smith. Smith will get $3.1MM guaranteed in the deal, Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun tweets.

TUESDAY, 3:47pm: The Raiders have agreed to terms with free agent tight end Lee Smith, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN (Twitter link). It’s a three-year, $9MM pact, tweets Adam Caplan of ESPN. The 27-year-old blocking specialist has the spent the entirety of his four-year career with Buffalo.

Per Schefter, Oakland will also visit with tight end Jermaine Gresham today. Vic Tafur of the Oakland Tribune adds more (via Twitter), saying that while nothing is yet official, most expect the Raiders to sign Gresham and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton today. Knighton was said to be close to a deal with Oakland earlier today, though the Colts are also in the running.

The Raiders will host several other free agents, including defensive tackle Dan Williams and linebacker Curtis Lofton, today, tweets John Middlekauf of 95.7 The Game. Oakland could be choosing between Williams and Knighton, per Tafur (Twitter link).

AFC Notes: Revis, Cameron, Lofton, Parker

Allowing that it could just be a rumor, the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe says (Twitter links) says he’s heard that the Patriots dropped out of the running for Darrelle Revis last night, forcing the Jets to bid against themselves. If so, it doesn’t seem to have lowered the CB’s price, as Revis secured a three-year, $48MM deal from New York.

More from the AFC…

  • Even after landing Ndamukong Suh, the Dolphins aren’t done, and their two main free agent targets at this point are tight end Jordan Cameron and cornerback Brice McCain, writes Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, who adds that McCain is currently in town. Cameron would presumably take the place of Charles Clay if the latter signs with the Bills.
  • Having recently been released by the Saints, linebacker Curtis Lofton will visit the Raiders, a source tells Adam Caplan of ESPN (Twitter link).
  • While they are in on Lofton, the Raiders don’t have any interest in free agent safety Ron Parker, per Bill Williamson of (Twitter link).
  • The Browns have are pursuing cornerback Perrish Cox, whom we earlier heard has a visit set up Washington, tweets Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. In fact, Cox will visit Cleveland on Thursday, says Rand Getlin of Yahoo! Sports (Twitter link).
  • The Patriots will host linebacker Colin McCarthy for a visit, says Field Yates of ESPN (via Twitter). A former Titan, McCartthy the entirety of the 2014 season on injured reserve.