This week, the writers at Last Word On Pro Football will be selecting starting lineups consisting of the best players from each division. In this article, the NFC South defense is the focus. Since each team runs a base 4-3 defense, that’s the format we’ll be using.
2017 NFC South All-Division Team: The Defense and Special Teams
Defensive End: Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons
Technically, Vic Beasley is an outside linebacker/edge rusher but Atlanta utilizes him as a defensive end. In only his second season, Beasley led the NFL in sacks with 15.5. That’s a huge jump from the four sacks he got in 2015. Beasley also contributed a couple of pass breakups and six forced fumbles for the young Falcons defense.
Defensive Tackle: Dontari Poe, Atlanta Falcons
Dontari Poe may not have had the most impressive stats last season, but he was still a dominant force on the inside. Poe comes into a young, fast, and physical defense that needed some help plugging gaps on the inside of the line. That’s exactly what Poe does best. Next to Grady Jarrett, Dontari Poe will take on extra pressure to allow Vic Beasley to add to his sack count this season.
Defensive Tackle: Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gerald McCoy is a beast. Period. Tampa Bay’s defensive gets taken for granted but the fact that McCoy has five or more sacks each season for the last five seasons is incredible. McCoy quietly finished last season with 34 tackles, seven sacks, five pass deflections, and two forced fumbles. Tampa Bay is looking more and more like a legitimate threat to the Falcons and McCoy is a big reason for that.
Defensive End: Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
Cameron Jordan is the only positive thing the Saints had on defense last season. Only the 49ers allowed more points than the Saints but Jordan didn’t make it easy on opposing offenses. Jordan finished 2016 with 58 tackles, seven-and-a-half sacks, six pass deflections, and a forced fumble. He’s consistently great as well. Cameron Jordan has recorded at least seven sacks in every season after his rookie season.
Outside Linebacker: Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers
Thomas Davis has consistently been a great linebacker for the Panthers. Luke Kuechly gets most of the praise and the hype but Davis is the heart and soul of this linebacker corps. After an amazing 2015 season, Davis achieved an incredibly difficult accomplishment. He came back just as strong in 2016 and matched his production. Davis finished 2016 with an impressive 106 tackles, two-and-a-half sacks, four pass deflections, three interceptions, and a forced fumble.
Middle Linebacker: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
As previously mentioned, Luke Kuechly is the star of the Panthers defense. Not for no reason either, Kuechly is an outstanding linebacker. Middle linebacker was actually the toughest decision to make. Kwon Alexander is an incredible young backer for the Buccaneers and Deion Jones looked amazing last season with the Falcons. New Orleans’ Craig Robertson even had a good year but Kuechly is the best of the four, for now. Even with missing six games to injury, Kuechly finished with 102 tackles, two sacks, six pass deflections, an interception, and a forced fumble.
Outside Linebacker: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Back to Tampa Bay being underestimated on defense. Lavonte David is on of the veteran presences on the defense. David has been consistently great for the Buccaneers. In his five seasons with Tampa, David has 664 tackles, 18 sacks, a safety, 36 pass deflections, 10 interceptions with two touchdowns, and 12 forced fumbles.
Cornerback: Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons
Desmond Trufant comes from a family of good cornerbacks (Marcus Trufant and Isaiah Trufant) so it’s no surprise he excels at the position. Trufant is in the argument for best corner in the NFL so it’s no surprise he’d be named best corner in the NFC South. He missed most of 2016 due to a torn pectoral muscle but finished with 32 tackles, two sacks, four pass deflections, an interception, and two forced fumbles. Trufant was also the only corner to not miss a single tackle in 2016.
Cornerback: Brent Grimes, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brent Grimes is another veteran presence for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Grimes has had an impressive career with the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, and now the Buccaneers. In his 10 seasons in the NFL, Grimes has 477 tackles, 123 pass deflections, 30 interceptions with three touchdowns, and three forced fumbles. Not to mention, Grimes led the NFL last season with 28 pass deflections.
Free Safety: Ricardo Allen, Atlanta Falcons
Ricardo Allen is a great fit in Dan Quinn’s “fast and physical” defense. Allen has progressively gotten better and benefits tremendously from getting to play opposite of Keanu Neal. Allen finished 2016 with 90 tackles, three pass deflections, and two interceptions.
Strong Safety: Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons
When Atlanta drafted Keanu Neal in the first round of the 2016 Draft, it seemed like a reach. Even with missing the first two regular season games due to knee injury, Neal showed everyone why he was worth that draft pick. Neal draws a lot of comparison to Kam Chancellor and is even considered one of the better strong safeties in the NFL (as a rookie!). It’s no surprise he’s the best strong safety in the NFC South. Keanu Neal played almost every position on the defense his rookie year. He played snaps at linebacker, free safety, strong safety, and both outside and nickel corner. At each position, Neal excelled. His versatility and hard-hitting abilities, as well as great coverage skills is what makes Keanu Neal such a great player.
Kicker: Matt Bryant, Atlanta Falcons
They don’t call him “Money” Matt Bryant for no reason. In his 16 seasons in the NFL, Bryant is 99% accurate on extra points and 85.6% accurate on field goals. Bryant has spent the last eight seasons with the Falcons and already owns the record for most points scored for the franchise, previously held by the great Morten Anderson. Bryant has a history of nailing game winners as well and, had the Falcons stayed in field goal position in Super Bowl 51, Bryant would have likely gotten his first Super Bowl winning field goal.
Punter: Bryan Anger, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The last thing you want to be known as, as a team, is to have the best punter. That means your offense just isn’t getting the job done. On the other hand, when fourth down arrives, it’s nice to have a great punter to help the defense out with good field position. Bryan Anger punted 70 times last season and 37 of those punts landed inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.