NFC South: D'Qwell Jackson

The New Orleans Saints have taken some major hits the past few days with the penalties for their bounty program, and they are facing a very tight salary-cap situation. The team announced very late Saturday night it has signed Atlanta free-agent linebacker Curtis Lofton to a five-year deal.

Lofton
This is a major victory for the Saints because Atlanta was interested in bringing Lofton back and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were also in the mix to some degree. The terms of Lofton’s contract are not immediately known, but it’s safe to say he got a good bit less than the $42 million for the same term given to Cleveland’s D'Qwell Jackson. Lofton tested free agency and appeared, at first, to want something close to what Jackson got, but didn’t seem to get any offers in that price range.

Lofton has been Atlanta’s middle linebacker the past four seasons and the Falcons apparently had some interest in keeping him. But new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has hinted he doesn’t view Lofton as an every-down player due to limitations in pass coverage.

The Saints apparently don’t view that as a large obstacle in the defense being installed by new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. This looks like a move to replace Jonathan Vilma at middle linebacker. Vilma is aging, coming off knee surgery and has a high salary-cap figure. At 26, Lofton is three years younger, has natural leadership abilities and should add stability to a linebacker corps going through major change.

Lofton could step in as the immediate starter. His arrival could allow the Saint to free up salary-cap room by releasing Vilma or restructuring his contract. Vilma also could face a suspension: His name has surfaced in connection with the bounty program and there has been speculation he could be suspended for much of the season – maybe all of it.

Whatever happens with Vilma, Lofton is a substantial upgrade for the Saints' linebacking corps.

Around the NFC South

February, 28, 2012
2/28/12
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Here's a look at the top Tuesday morning headlines from around the NFC South.

Here’s a debate about whether Atlanta’s trade up to get receiver Julio Jones was worth the draft picks the Falcons gave up as compensation. It’s a legitimate question, and you can make points on both sides of the argument. But I think time will show the Falcons did the right thing by trading for Jones. He’s going to be a special player. We saw flashes of it in his rookie season. Consistency is the next step, and that will come soon because Jones will get a full offseason program this year.

Stephen Holder takes a look at how a potential trade by St. Louis out of the No. 2 spot in the draft would impact the Buccaneers at No. 5. He says it likely would mean the Bucs would have their choice at No. 5 between LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Alabama running back Trent Richardson. That appears to be a no-lose decision. Both are good players, and the Bucs have needs at both positions.

In this chat, Jeff Duncan said the Saints will continue to negotiate with quarterback Drew Brees right up until the March 5 deadline. He says the Saints will only use the franchise tag on Brees if all else fails, and says it’s more likely the tag will be used on guard Carl Nicks.

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that the market for Atlanta free-agent linebacker Curtis Lofton has been set by the five-year $42.5 million deal signed by Cleveland’s D’Qwell Jackson. While Lofton’s agent might use that as a negotiating point, I’m not sure Jackson’s deal is a realistic parameter for Lofton’s deal. Lofton is a very good middle linebacker and a defensive leader, but I don’t think it would be accurate to say he’s one of the top five middle linebackers in the game. I think his market value is somewhere less than Jackson’s.

Nakia Hogan writes that one draft prospect who could be intriguing to the Saints is West Virginia’s Bruce Irvin. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, he’s a “tweener’’ between a defensive end and a linebacker. But the guy has unique pass-rush skills, and the Saints need to improve their rush. They don’t have a first-round pick, but Irvin could be available in the second round.

Defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Devon Still are commonly mentioned as prime candidates for the Panthers, who have the No. 9 pick. But Joseph Person writes that Memphis tackle Dontari Poe has worked himself into the argument with a strong showing at the combine.

Atlanta LB duo a fixture on the field

February, 7, 2012
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Atlanta linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon almost never left the field during the 2011 season.

According to playing-time numbers obtained by ESPN.com, Lofton participated in 986 of Atlanta’s 996 defensive plays (99 percent). Weatherspoon was right behind him, taking part in 976 plays (97.9 percent). Those two and Carolina’s James Anderson (97.3 percent) easily outdistanced the rest of the NFC South linebackers in playing time.

In fact, only Cleveland’s D'Qwell Jackson, St. Louis' James Laurinaitis, Chicago’s Lance Briggs and Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan, who each played all of their team’s defensive snaps, and Minnesota’s Chad Greenway (99.3 percent) participated in a higher percentage of plays than Lofton, Weatherspoon and Anderson.

Here’s a list at the rest of the leading NFC South linebackers in percentage of playing time:

Saluting NFC South's Iron Men

February, 1, 2012
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In recent days, I’ve been sharing some details on 2011 playing time at various positions. We’ll continue to do that going forward and still have to touch on NFC South fullbacks and all the defensive positions.

But this is Iron Man Day, so we’re going to talk about offensive linemen. As a general rule, offensive linemen get a greater percentage of playing time than players at all the other positions. That’s part of the nature of the position -- teams want continuity.

In 2011, 42 NFL players took part in 100 percent of their teams offensive and defensive snaps. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, St. Louis linebacker James Laurinitis, Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs, Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan all deserve special mention for taking part in 100 percent of their team’s snaps at positions where that’s pretty rare.

Aside from those six players, 36 others took part in all of their team’s offensive plays. All of them were offensive linemen and seven of them were from the NFC South.

Carolina guard Geoff Hangartner, Atlanta guard Justin Blalock, New Orleans guard Carl Nicks, Tampa Bay guard Davin Joseph, Atlanta tackle Tyson Clabo, New Orleans tackle Jermon Bushrod and Tampa Bay tackle Donald Penn each took part in every one of their team’s offensive snaps.

Several other NFC South offensive linemen also came close to achieving that honor. Here’s a look at the other NFC South linemen that played more than 90 percent of their team’s offensive snaps.

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