2017 NFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense

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ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01: Head coach Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons shakes hands with head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints after the game at the Georgia Dome on January 1, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

During the month of August, the Last Word on Pro Football department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article holds a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC South defenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2017 NFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense

Defensive Line

The Best: Carolina Panthers

The Rest: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints

The Carolina Panthers have far and away the best defensive line in the division. Their trenches are anchored by defensive tackle Kawann Short. A second-round selection in 2013, Short made the Pro Bowl after setting career highs in tackles (36), sacks (11), pass deflections (four), forced fumbles (three) and fumble recoveries (two) in 2015. Though his production slipped last year, he still contributed with six takedowns and three pass deflections. Short is complemented by Star Lotulelei, who was picked in the first round of that 2013 draft.

Tabbed 14th overall, Lotulelei hasn’t lived up to his draft billing, but the Utah product did achieve a career-best four sacks in 2016. At defensive end, Carolina has Charles Johnson, who has been one the franchise’s most productive defenders since his arrival in 2007. During his prime (2010-2014), Johnson posted five consecutive seasons of at least eight sacks. He’s missed time since then, but he can wreak havoc when healthy. Last, but definitely not least, the Panthers have Julius Peppers back on the roster. In his last season with team in 2009, Peppers tallied 10.5 sacks, five pass deflections and five forced fumbles. Already a “Mount Rushmore” player for the team, the veteran will only add on to his all-time franchise lead in takedowns.

If any of Carolina’s bookend edge rushers get fatigued, Mario Addison, who had a career-high 9.5 sacks last season, can be plugged in at any moment. This core makes one forget that the Panthers once had Kony Ealy, whose three-sack performance in Super Bowl 50 would’ve given him MVP honors had they defeated the Denver Broncos.

Of the remaining three NFC South teams, Tampa Bay is the one with a defensive line in the remote stratosphere as Carolina’s. Their standing is largely due to the presence of tackle Gerald McCoy. Since his third NFL season in 2012, McCoy has earned Pro Bowl nods every year by averaging 27 tackles and almost eight sacks in that span. He doesn’t receive the notoriety of other star defenders because of the lack of his team’s success, but the eighth-year interior lineman always shows up on Sunday. Adding veteran Chris Baker will make for a formidable pairing on the inside. Though he’s missed some playing time, William Gholston can get the team a few sacks when on the field. In the event Gholson doesn’t show up, Robert Ayers, a pass rusher with at least five sacks in four straight seasons, is always there get after the quarterback.

Atlanta’s defensive line consists of talented college players who haven’t lived up to their draft-day billings. Brooks Reed had six sacks in his 2011 rookie year, but the defensive end has only tallied 10.5 since. Even worse, after a decorated tenure at the University of Alabama, Courtney Upshaw has only registered six takedowns total in the NFL. In his second season, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had three sacks and 21 tackles last year. Two-time Pro Bowler Dontari Poe is the only formidable starting lineman the Falcons have, and even he hasn’t been at his peak form since 2014.

Defensive line is just one of several unproven areas for the Saints. Outside of two-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, who’s posted at least seven sacks in five consecutive seasons, New Orleans has lacked consistency along its front four. Tackle Sheldon Rankins is a guy who can give the Saints a tremendous boost in year two, along with Tyler Davidson, who’s entering his third year. Hopefully for the team, newly-acquired edge rusher Alex Okafor can return to his 2014 form when he set career marks in takedowns (eight) and pass deflections (three).

Linebacker

The Best: Carolina Panthers

The Rest: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints

Linebacker is the other position that Carolina blows its divisional foes out of the water, thanks to the All-Pro duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Despite only playing 10 games in 2016, Kuechly still made 102 tackles and deflected six passes. Boasting four Pro Bowl selections, three All-Pro honors and a Defensive Player of the Year award, the Boston College standout is clearly the best at his position. Though he’s much older, Davis performs better than his younger contemporaries. While his numbers dipped last season, the veteran reeled in 106 tackles and his first career touchdown. That stat sheet doesn’t show his impact, but Shaq Thompson finished 2016 with a Pro Football Focus grade of 85.

Because of Kuechly and Davis, Lavonte David is one of the unsung star backers in the league. After earning All-Pro acknowledgement in 2013 and amassing 471 tackles, 18 sacks, 33 pass deflections and 12 forced fumbles in five NFL seasons, David has silently been one of the game’s most complete players. At middle linebacker is third-year talent Kwon Alexander. Already with 167 stops and 16 passes defended in two seasons, the former LSU Tiger is on an upward trend of productivity. Cameron Lynch is set to start for the unavailable Jacquies Smith at the other outside backer slot.

Atlanta has one of the fastest defenses in the NFL, and their speed starts at the linebacker spot. Vic Beasley headlines this corps after his breakout 15.5-sack campaign in 2016. The All-Pro pass rusher is aided by a another potential star in Deion Jones. After concluding his rookie year with 108 tackles, 11 pass deflections and three interceptions (two for touchdowns), Jones was named to our Pro Bowl Snubs list. Also in his debut season, De’Vondre Campbell had 35 tackles, seven pass breakups, a pick and a forced fumble in 10 starts. With its youth and potential, the Falcons could potentially surpass Tampa Bay’s linebacker group in the foreseeable future.

As currently constructed, the Saints have an abysmal second level. After a promising 2015 rookie showing, two straight lackluster seasons have Stephone Anthony’s roster spot in jeopardy. Putting pressure on Anthony is veteran newcomer Manti Te’o and rookie Alex Anzalone. Missing all of 2016 due to injury, an outside pass-rushing presence from Hau’oli Kikaha would do the Saints extreme favors. Craig Robertson is the team’s top backer thanks to his personal-best 115 tackles last year.

Cornerback

The Best: Atlanta Falcons

The Rest: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints

The 2013 draft pair of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford has the Falcons placing first in the NFC South’s cornerback department. The tandem doesn’t stand out in terms of interceptions (only 16 combined), but their sound technicality helps them make plays on the ball and disrupt passing offenses. He appeared in just nine games last season, but Trufant made the Pro Bowl in the 2015 season. Fully available for the first time in 2016, Alford achieved career bests in passes defensed (19) and tackles (50). Though their 70-range Pro Football Focus grades from 2016 weren’t stellar, the Falcons have a nice foundation on the perimeter.

The presence of Brent Grimes lifts the Tampa Bay corners to the second spot. The acquisition of the four-time Pro Bowler immediately paid dividends as he recorded a career high 24 passes defended, 51 tackles and four interceptions in his first seasons with the Bucs. Compiling 415 tackles,123 pass disruptions and 30 picks in 10 NFL seasons, Grimes has truly been one of the league’s most underappreciated cornerbacks. Vernon Hargreaves III will benefit greatly with Grimes on the opposite side. Only having one interception in his rookie season, the former Florida Gator sensation did have 68 tackles, 10 pass deflections and a forced fumble.

Considering that he was only a rookie, James Bradberry did an admirable job in replacing star corner Josh Norman in Carolina. The second rounder from Arkansas State put forth 47 stops, 10 pass breakups and two picks. Bradberry also flashed on PFF with an 82.4 grade. Competing against the likes of Julio Jones, Mike Evans and Michael Thomas, at statline similar to Bradberry’s so early in a career should be respected. It will be intriguing to see how he and fellow second-year defender Daryl Worley will mesh while trying to neutralize such imposing offensive juggernauts.

The cornerback position has religiously plagued the Saints. Having a revolving door at this area for the better part of a decade, there just hasn’t been that long-term settlement. New Orleans seemingly found the answer in Delvin Breaux after his outstanding 2015 rookie campaign, but injuries have put his career at a crossroads. With Breaux out for the next month or so, the Saints have to look to P.J. Williams and rookie Marshon Lattimore, two other players hampered with health issues.

Safety

The Best: Carolina Panthers

The Rest: Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The addition of Mike Adams gives Carolina the best safety tandem. Even at the advanced age of 36, the 14-year strong safety still performs at a high level. Earning consecutive Pro Bowl bids from 2014-2015, Adams has contributed 619 tackles, 77 passes defended, 25 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles since joining the NFL in 2004. Adams will be aided by another skilled veteran in Kurt Coleman. After setting personal highs in pass deflections (nine) and picks (seven) for the 15-1 Panthers, Coleman was a member of our site’s Pro Bowl Snub list for the 2015 season. Having these playmaking safeties to assist the already-dominant Panther front seven will give the team a significant advantage in 2017.

When the Atlanta Falcons went 13-3 in 2012, they boasted a Pro Bowl safety duo in William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. Five years later, the team is trying to recreate that backend continuity with Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. As a 2015 rookie, Allen made contributions in every aspect with 59 tackles, five pass breakups, three picks and a fumble recovery. Neal excelled in his first year 72 stops, nine pass deflections and five forced fumbles. Both Allen and Neal graded nicely by Pro Football Focus with counts of 81.8 and 79.5, respectively. These guys were narrowly edged out by Carolina, but they should be atop of the division once Adams and Coleman begin to fade.

Though they aren’t Darren Sharper and Roman Harper, Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell are gifted center fielders. Since being drafted in 2013, Vaccaro has amassed 235 tackles, six sacks and 22 passes defensed. In his first season, Bell posted 58 tackle, four pass deflections and two forced fumbles. The on-field efforts helped Vaccaro’s and Bell’s PFF grades become 80.6 and 74.6, respectively.

While safety is Tampa Bay’s weakest defensive position, Keith Tandy and Chris Conte are capable defenders. Only starting in four contests in 2016, Tandy set highs in tackles (41), passes defended (nine) and interceptions (four) to earn a PFF count of 84.7. Conte has been a decent participant by posting at least five pass breakups in four of the last five seasons.

Special Teams

The Best: New Orleans Saints

The Rest: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Finally, an area that the New Orleans Saints come first in. The team’s special teams unit is featured by the division’s most-recent Pro Bowl punter, Thomas Morstead. Entering his ninth year, Morstead has almost 22,000 total punt yards while averaging 47 yards per punt. Kicker Wil Lutz went 28/34 in field goals attempts as a rookie in 2016. Based on his strong camp this summer, he may potentially have a more successful season. No return man in the NFC South is more dangerous–or proven–than Ted Ginn. Amassing 2,497 punt return yards, 6,842 kickoff return yards and seven total return touchdowns since his NFL debut in 2007, the Saints hold a special teams gem in Ginn.

Though he’s not John Kasay, Graham Gano has remained a steady NFL kicker by converting at least 75 percent of field goals in seven of his eight seasons. Even though his prime stage was with the San Francisco 49ers, three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee has been one of the top punters of this generation. Having two 80-yard punts on your resume isn’t something to easily dismiss. The Panthers did lose Ted Ginn, but the team replaced him with rookie Christian McCaffrey. The collegiate star and triple-threat running back will be a productive piece on the Carolina special teams unit. If McCaffrey is unavailable, Fozzy Whittaker can pick up the slack.

Falcons kicker Matt Bryant had an amazing 2016 season by making his first Pro Bowl and becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. After making the 2011 All-Rookie team, Matt Bosher has been a consistent punter for Atlanta. Already with three return scores in his NFL career, journeyman Andre Roberts is a nice addition for the Falcons.

Tampa Bay’s off-season has been headlined by the waiving of Roberto Aguayo, the kicker who the Bucs traded up for to grab in the second round of last year’s draft. The acquisition was so miserable that it was mocked on social media. Aguayo was replaced by Nick Folk, the 11-year kicker who had great success early in his career in Dallas by making the 2007 Pro Bowl as a rookie. Though he didn’t get a punt blocked, Bryan Anger’s longest punt was only 59 yards in 2016. Hopefully for the Buccaneers, Adam Humphries and Ryan Smith can provide a boost in the return game.

Coaching

The Best: Carolina Panthers

The Rest: New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

While Sean Payton is the NFC South’s most accomplished with his win total (100) and 2009 championship, Ron Rivera is the division’s premier coach right now. Since taking the helm for Carolina in 2011, Rivera has won 53 games, two Coach of the Year awards (2013, 2015) and a trip to the Super Bowl. For a division that never saw a repeat champion since its 2002 inception, he lead the Panthers to the unprecedented three-peat from 2013-2015. His defensive prowess has been the main catalyst for their prosperous stretch. Though the team regressed in 2016, Rivera is more than capable in getting Carolina back to its winning ways.

As aforementioned, Sean Payton has achieved much in this league. His offensive acumen and overall presence helped mold the Saints into the NFL’s top offensive team since his 2006 arrival. Despite his decorated resume, he has lost his mystique due to three consecutive 7-9 seasons. On the hot seat in the eyes of some analysts, the former Coach of the Year needs a vast turnaround to maintain his job.

Dan Quinn has enjoyed an exceptional four-year stretch as a football coach. After reaching back-to-back Super Bowls as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks, Quinn led the Falcons to the big game in just his second year as the head man. Already having one the league’s top offenses at his disposal, he is constructing a young defensive unit that has the collective talent to develop into one of the elite groups in the game. Football viewers will be hard pressed to see any sort of major decline from Atlanta in years to come.

One of the more interesting coaching staffs in the NFL resides in Tampa, Florida. Head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith (both of whom spent time together in Atlanta) start a new era in Tampa Bay with a promising young roster. Though Jameis Winston isn’t Matt Ryan, he’s one of the league’s future stars at quarterback, which will bring delight to Koetter as a playcaller. While Koetter isn’t as seasoned as the other three leaders, the Bucs have an exciting roster that is expected to compete for postseason contention in 2017.

If you haven’t already, check out the offensive version as well!
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