2016 NFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

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During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC South’s defenses and special teams. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2016 NFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best: Carolina Panthers

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

The Carolina Panthers have become the NFC’s best team in large part because of the defense, and many teams’ defensive dominance starts up front. The front four is led by defensive tackle Kawann Short, the 2013 draftee who enjoyed a breakout 11-sack campaign for the league’s sixth-best defense. Fellow draft-mate Star Lotulelei is also a very capable interior defender. Although at an advanced age, defensive end Charles Johnson still provides talent and veteran leadership. Even though he doesn’t have the sack numbers (only five in 2015), Kony Ealy’s three forced fumbles proved that he can be a disturbance on any play.

Despite having better individual grades from Pro Football Focus, Tampa Bay’s front four still places second at this defensive level. Averaging out with a grade of 79.3, Tampa finished with 38 sacks, second most in the division and tied for 14th in the league. Perennial Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy led the team with 8.5 sacks while Robert Ayers received the highest PFF grade (87.9). Their efforts earned them spots on Last Word On Sports’ All-Division team.

In 2013, the New Orleans Saints had 49 sacks (12-plus takedowns from two players alone). The team only has 65 combined sacks since 2014. The only constant about these last three seasons is defensive end Cameron Jordan. Earning his first Pro Bowl selection after a 12.5-sack 2013 campaign, Jordan was granted his second trip to Hawaii in 2015 after another double-digit takedown year. Outside of him, the team’s pass rush is nonexistent. Another key element will be the early absence of rookie Sheldon Rankins due to injury. Hopefully for the Saints, Edge rusher Kasim Edebali, defensive tackle Nick Fairley can produce as quality starters, because any help for Jordan can be utilized.

The Falcons have some talented pieces along the defensive line, but nobody near upper-echelon status. Derrick Shelby is the line’s best member, boasting a 2015 PFF grade of 81.5, whereas the other three guys are graded below 79. Void of consistent pass-rushing, Atlanta only mustered up 19 sacks, dead last in football last season. With the level of quarterback play in the NFC South, the Falcons provide offenses an easier chance to succeed.

Linebackers

The Best: Carolina Panthers

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

If you’re looking for world-class linebacker play, look no further than Charlotte, North Carolina. With Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis supporting the defensive line, the Carolina Panthers have arguably the best linebacker corps in the NFL. Since entering the league in 2012, Kuechly has become the best defender in the NFC. Named both Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in his brief four-year career, the three-time Pro Bowler’s versatility in against the run and pass makes him the game’s top backer. Thomas Davis is the perfect complement to Kuechly, making sideline to sideline tackles and stopping plays short. Surpassing 100 tackles four consecutive years, Davis made his first Pro Bowl after achieving career highs in passes defensed (7), sacks (5.5), interceptions (4) and forced fumbles (4).Talented rookie outside linebacker Shaq Thompson also displayed his abilities by posting 50 stops, two passes defensed and a sack in 10 starts.

With the acquisition of Daryl Smith, Tampa Bay has upgraded to the second-best linebacking group in the NFC South. Although the veteran is 34, he’s only eight months removed from concluding a 118-tackle, three-sack and one-pick campaign. The bunch already benefits from Lavonte David, another Pro Bowl linebacker who was drafted in the same year as the aforementioned Kuechly. A tackling machine who has at least 139 stops in each of his four NFL seasons, David is an every-down playmaking on an otherwise average defense. Another Tampa backer with a bright future is Kwon Alexander, who earned immense respect from his team a gutsy 11-tackle, one interception performance in Week 8, just two days after the death of his brother. His aggressiveness as a tackler will continue to bring a much-needed edge to this franchise.

New Orleans is another NFC South team with a veteran-laden linebacker group. Dannell Ellerbe is a dynamic player that has proven to be a huge asset for the team when healthy. Never missing a game in his first seven seasons, James Laurinaitis consistency and leadership will be valued. Leading all NFL rookies with 112 tackles, the second-year up-and-comer Stephone Anthony is the Saints’ future at the linebacker position. Newly-acquired Paul Kruger was a tremendous boost the unit as well. While most critics suggest he didn’t live up to his 2013 free agency payday, the 30-year-old isn’t too far away from his 11-takedown output from 2014.

Even with experiences players, the Atlanta linebackers are inferior to their divisional rivals. Sean Weatherspoon has been the NFC South’s version of Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee; a highly productive playmaker who is an injury-riddled athlete (Oh, the irony with the first name). Although his steady tackle output earned him a spot on Last Word On Sports’ Pro Bowl Snubs list a couple seasons ago, Paul Worrilow isn’t the most skilled or complete backer in the league. Vic Beasley, though undersized, is the Falcons most-talented at this spot. Already with the athleticism and explosiveness, the second-year pass rusher could become a dominant force with added bulk and muscle.

Cornerbacks

The Best: Atlanta Falcons

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

Based on PFF evaluations, Atlanta. The position is led by Desmond Trufant, the 2013 first rounder who made his first Pro Bowl with his 82.2 grade from the analytics site. Robert Alford, who finished with a 77 grade, reached career highs in tackles (42) and passes defensed (15) in 2015. Because of the tandem’s ability and the lack of corner depth throughout the division, they are in position to silently be among the best in the NFL.

The Brent Grimes signing has boosted the Buccaneers secondary status in this Southern division. The four-time Pro Bowler–who made three in a row in Miami–will improve the play of new teammate Alterraun Verner, who had a down season after posting plus-76 PFF grades the previous five campaigns. The presence of veterans will greatly aid rookie Vernon Hargreaves, the former Florida Gator who has star-level potential as a professional.

Delvin Breaux showed he deserves to be an NFL starter last season, but the players behind him are well unproven. Even with his health issues, the surprise of the off-season was the release of Keenan Lewis, who was vital in the Saints’ dramatic defensive turnaround in the 2013 season. Second-year man P.J. Williams, who spent his rookie year on injured reserve– is set to fill in the number two corner spot. New Orleans did sign Courtland Finnegan from Carolina for experience insurance, but he’s far past his peak days.

The Panthers took a massive hit at the position after losing All-Pro Josh Norman, Charles Tillman and the aforementioned Finnegan. Expecting to start two rookies on the outside, they will be vulnerable to big passing plays. The silver lining from the exodus, however, is that Carolina has an elite front seven that will alleviate playmaking pressure from the defensive backfield.

Safety

The Best: Carolina Panthers

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

Despite the massive cornerback loss, Carolina maintained continuity at safety. Free safety Kurt Coleman, one of Last Word On Sports’ Pro Bowl snubs from 2015, is still in the fold. Tallying 90 tackles, nine passes defensed, seven interceptions and a sack, both his presence and production will be much enjoyed after an off-season full of departures. Although strong safety Roman Harper is returning to New Orleans for the 2016 season, Tre Boston has shown to contribute in multiple areas on the field.

The Saints defense is abysmal collectively, but Jairus Byrdand Kenny Vaccaro form a more talented tandem than Tampa Bay and Atlanta. Graded a 75.6 and an 80 by Pro Football Focus, respectively, there’s several aspects of the game their do admirably well. What hurts their cause is the numbers fans all see, and those are passing yards and touchdowns. New Orleans forfeited the most passing touchdowns in history in 2015. For the team have any remote chance at the playoffs, their backend must improve.

The Buccaneers have a similar scenario as the Saints at the safety spot. According to PFF, Chris Conte had the best professional campaign of his five-year career with a 75.6 grade. Although his play decreased to a 67.8 in 2015 (had a 75.6 in 2014), Bradley McDougald can still be a capable defensive back. Tampa could really benefit from strong defensive play as well this season.

In his first year as the starting safety, Atlanta’s Ricardo Allen boasted a 76 PFF grade after garnering four passes defensed, three interceptions and a sack. First-round draft pick Keanu Neal will miss the first couple of games, but is expected to produce immediately after. The Falcons should hope that this combo will be alike the 2012 tandem of William Moore and Thomas Decoud, who both made Pro Bowl appearances that year.

Special Teams

The Best: Carolina Panthers

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

The Panthers clearly posses the best special teams unit in the NFC South with proven players at kicker, punter and return specialist. Graham Gano’s 30 made field goals was tops in the division. Via trade, the team recently acquired punter Andy Lee, who was one of the league’s elite punters during his San Francisco days during the late 2000s. And, of course, Ted Ginn is still returning kicks and punts.

Kicker Matt Bryantand punter Matt Bosher have been two of the most reliable players at their position. The Falcons did lose all-time great Devin Hester in the return game, but Eric Weemshas made the Pro Bowl before thanks to his special team capabilities.

Although the kicker spot has been such a revolving door for New Orleans since 2007, the franchise has found solace their Pro Bowl punter Thomas Morstead. Another area they’ve found success at is their return game. From Reggie Bush to Darren Sproles to now Travaris Cadet and Marcus Murphy, the team will continue to enjoy solid field position week-to-week.’

The loss of Bobby Rainey caused Tampa to take major hit in these rankings. The Bucs have inexperience at every special teams level with the exception of punter Bryan Anger, whose 39.5 net punt yard average was 22nd in the league last year.

Coaching

The Best: Carolina Panthers

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

After the Panthers claimed the division for the third consecutive season, two-time Coach of the Year Ron Rivera has become the South’s best coach. After going 13-19 in his first two campaigns with Carolina, Rivera has gone 34-13-1 since 2013. Even though he has a .500 mark in the postseason (3-3), nothing can be taken from his dominance from September to December.

Sean Payton easily is the most tenured and successful of the division’s four coaches, but the last few seasons have caused the him to lose the top spot. Excluding the Bountygate-hampered 2012 campaign, the Saints have made the playoffs only once in the last three seasons (2013). New Orleans would need another deep run in January in order for Payton to regain the NFC South’s coach crown.

Dan Quinn showed flashes of coaching brilliance at the start of 2015, winning six of their first seven contests, but faltered down the stretch. Despite the team’s collapse, Quinn is only entering his second season as an NFL head coach. With a highly-skillful offense and a continually-growing defense, Quinn’s has the opportunity to advance on this list.

By default, rookie head coach Dirk Koetter places last in the division. Previously having success as an offensive coordinator with Matt Ryan and Falcons, Koetter will look to get the most production out of Jameis Winston in his second year in the pros.

 

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