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NFC South Roundup: OTA Edition

With OTA’s winding down and mandatory minicamps set to start next week for NFL teams, the more important practices are near.

The NFC South is a division that saw all four teams finish under .500 in 2014 with the Carolina Panthers ending up as the division winner with a 7-8-1 record.

Anyone of the teams can win the division this season with Carolina, New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay all hungry to prove what they can put out on the grass.

Here’s an NFC South roundup at the end of OTA’s.

Atlanta Falcons

Former 2013 first rounder Desmond Trufant has five interceptions in 32 career starts and 108 tackles and 33 pass breakups.

Trufant is only going to get better as he enters his third NFL season under new head coach Dan Quinn. Injuries took a toll on Atlanta’s cornerback depth a season ago as co-starter Robert Alford missed six games and the defense ended up near the bottom of the league in passing yards allowed.

Alford is competing with second-round pick Jalen Collins and last year’s third-round pick Dezmen Southward for the No. 2 cornerback spot.

Trufant is the leader of the group which should be an improvement over last year’s bunch especially under the defensive-minded Quinn.

“I’m more impressed with Trufant above the neck than anything,” assistant head coach Raheem Morris said via Falcons.com. “What he brings to the game, how smart he is, how detailed he is about his work, how good he wants to become. He has a great bloodline. I love being around the guy more than the actual player.”

Carolina Panthers

In the final OTA practice on Thursday, a rather unknown defensive player stepped up in a big way. That player was fifth-year safety Colin Jones.

He picked off Cam Newton’s pass attempt in the red zone during the two-minute drill portion of practice. The pick came at the goal line and Jones took it around 60 yards before Newton caught up to him.

“I saw it pretty well off his hands and thought I could make the play without going to the ground,” Jones said via Panthers.com. “Fortunately I was able to have (safety) Kurt (Coleman) leading me up the field and try to get a touchdown out of it. Cam had a good angle, but I had a lead blocker, and I would have trusted Kurt to make the block.”

Jones, a former 2011 sixth-round pick by San Francisco has been mainly a special-teamer in his NFL career. Last season, he started two games and totaled 27 tackles, three pass breakups, a sack and a forced fumble in 16 appearances.

Veteran Roman Harper and second-year North Carolina product Tre Boston are the projected starters with Jones and Robert Lester expected to be the main backups. Plays like that from Jones in practices will only help him moving forward.

New Orleans Saints

On Friday, New Orleans signed 34-year-old veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams and waived tight end Harold Spears. The longtime Minnesota Viking spent 2014 in Seattle where he started eight games and played 445 snaps. Williams will compete for rotational time with Akiem Hicks, Broderick Bunkley.

Brandin Cooks is going to be a key to New Orleans competing for an NFC South crown in 2015.

Brandin Cooks is going to be a key to New Orleans competing for an NFC South crown in 2015.

As expected second-year wide receiver Brandin Cooks should fill the void left by the trade of Kenny Stills this off-season. A 2014 first-round pick, Cooks totaled 53 catches, 550 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games.

“Depending on the progression, it will take you to that weak side X and you will be doing so much that there will be a day where yesterday or the day before that there was another receiver,” head coach Saints Sean Payton said via Neworleanssaints.com. “You know how it’s been here. It’s pretty difficult to chart where one receiver is getting a ton of the targets but back to the earlier question. Brandin knows what we’re doing, he’s smart and he’s been out here and doing well.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Head coach Lovie Smith had a tough time piecing together the right parts to have a successful defense in his first year in Tampa Bay. This season he should be better off with health being back on their side and a mix of rising youngsters and solid veterans.

Linebacker Bruce Carter is one of those guys that fits the bill in terms of the Cover-2 scheme that Smith employs.

Carter, 27, spent his first four seasons in Dallas where he compiled 32 starts with 242 tackles, five interceptions, three sacks and 14 pass breakups along the way. In Rod Marinelli’s defense over the past two seasons he has excelled. He added a career-high 96 tackles in 2013 and an impressive five interceptions in 2014 in eight starts.

He is projected to the be the middle linebacker for the Bucs alongside starters Lavonte David and Danny Lansanah. It will be a transition after being mainly an outside backer in his career, but his experiences with Marinelli should help him feel at home in Tampa.

“There is a lot we ask of our linebackers, starting with making the calls,” Smith said via Buccaneers.com. “Bruce has done that. He has good athletic ability. Just look at our history with Mike linebackers – any good defense, it starts there. He is the quarterback of the defense. Bruce can handle all that, so we are excited about what we think he is going to bring to the table.”

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