Curtis Lofton could stay in NFC South

Back in 2008, it appeared the Atlanta Falcons drafted a quarterback for their offense and defense.

They took quarterback Matt Ryan in the first round and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton in the second round and the thinking was the Falcons would have their leaders on offense and defense for the next decade or so.

But now it appears Lofton will be gone. The Falcons agreed to terms with veteran middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu on Saturday. Lofton is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent Tuesday afternoon and Tatupu’s arrival is a pretty clear sign the Falcons are preparing for life without Lofton.

Will they be better off without him? I have a tough time seeing that. Tatupu was a very good player earlier in his career. But he’s been bothered by injuries in recent years and sat out all of last season. There are no guarantees he’ll return to his earlier form.

On paper, Tatupu is better in pass coverage than Lofton. The Falcons also have second-year pro Akeem Dent, who, perhaps, could share the position with Tatupu in the short term and take it over in the long term.

There have been rumblings that new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan doesn’t view Lofton as a three-down player and doesn’t want to use him on passing downs. That could have caused problems in contract talks because Lofton has had solid numbers and likely wants to be paid like a top middle linebacker.

He might get that kind of deal somewhere else, but not with the Falcons. They’ve shown they’re about to move on without him. I don’t think their defense gets any better by losing Lofton. But not paying him big money could help the Falcons pursue a top-notch pass-rusher like Mario Williams. If they get him, then the defense improves.

Where does Lofton go? I’d keep an eye on Tampa Bay. Lofton’s a competitive sort and I think he’d like the chance to play the Falcons twice a year. The Bucs could have a need at middle linebacker. They started rookie Mason Foster there last year, but there are indications the Bucs may move him to the outside.

Lofton is known as a great locker-room guy and a natural leader. That’s something the Bucs could use on their defense. Also, I think Lofton can be an every-down linebacker in the right system. While he may not be great in pass coverage, I don’t think he’s terribly incompetent and he’s very good against the run. He’s also relatively young, with four years of experience. That’s the type of free agent the Bucs will be looking for.

There also is another NFC South possibility for Lofton. The New Orleans Saints had problems at linebacker last season and there is speculation middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma could be a salary-cap casualty before Tuesday’s start of free agency.

The Saints don’t have a lot of cap room. But, if they lose Vilma, they’re going to have to find a new leader for their defense. Lofton is younger and healthier than Vilma and the Saints could get a little creative with their cap and pursue him.