NFC South top 25: No. 14

We continue our series of my projected top 25 players in the NFC South for the 2012 season with No. 14:

Curtis Lofton, linebacker, New Orleans

What he did in 2011: Lofton had a fourth straight very solid season for the Atlanta Falcons. He had a career-high 147 tackles, two interceptions, forced a fumble and recorded a sack. But when free agency rolled around, Lofton was looking for huge money. The Falcons wanted to keep him, but were only offering a little over half his initial asking price. There also were rumblings that new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan didn’t think Lofton was a three-down linebacker. Lofton drifted in free agency for several weeks. He never got the kind of money he first was looking for. But he elected not to go back to Atlanta with his tail between his legs, instead choosing to sign with the division-rival Saints.

Why he’s No. 14 in 2012: Lofton and the Saints already have been making a lot of noise about how he’ll be a three-down linebacker in New Orleans. The Saints are serious about that. Lofton’s an instant upgrade over what Jonathan Vilma was in the middle when he was hobbled by a knee problem virtually all of last season. Lofton’s a natural leader and a younger version of Vilma. Plus, it appears Lofton heard the whispers that he’s not a great coverage linebacker and has dropped weight, presumably to increase his quickness. Lofton is a very prideful guy and I’m sure he’ll be highly motivated to go out and prove to the Falcons that they were wrong. That’s why I’m expecting a big season from Lofton.