2020 NFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

2020 NFC South

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 defenses and special teams. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order. The New Orleans Saints had the best overall rated defense in 2019, but can any of their units be overtaken by the new look Buccaneers, the rebuilt Panthers, or the veteran-led Falcons?  Here is the 2020 NFC South breakdown defense and special teams rankings.

2020 NFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  2. Atlanta Falcons
  3. New Orleans Saints
  4. Carolina Panthers

Defensive Line Analysis

The Buccaneers lead the way for the defensive lines. In the 3-4 system, this line will not have a lot of sacks but they still managed 3.5 in 2019 and over 30 hits on the quarterback. The quarterback hits were the highest in the NFC South by almost double. The Buccaneers unit was also tied with the most tackles for loss, contributing to their number one ranked rushing defense from 2019. 

The Falcons’ Garrett and Davison come in as one of the few bright spots on the defense. They tied the Buccaneers for most tackles for loss and sacks of any defensive line unit in the NFC South with 8.5 combined. They combined for the second-most quarterback hits with 18. The unit will need to improve its 15th ranked passing defense going forward.

Close behind is the Saints’ Rankins and Brown. Rankins only played in 10 games in 2019 and can advance this unit with a repeat of his 2018 performance. The veteran Malcolm Brown held down the middle of the Saints defense, leading to the Saints having the fourth-best rushing defense in 2019. Brown also had two sacks, six tackles for loss, and five quarterback hits. A complimentary season from Rankins will help the Saints defense.

The Panthers come in last for these rankings mainly due to the unknown. Derrick Brown was drafted in the first round in the 2020 NFL Draft. He is a highly-touted prospect but will need to show it on the field. Likewise, Kawann Short will need to show he can stay on the field. Short only played in two games in 2019. The talent for both of these linemen is enough to excite the Panthers organization but there are too many unknowns to rank the unit above any other.

Edge Rushers

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  2. New Orleans Saints
  3. Carolina Panthers
  4. Atlanta Falcons

Edge Rushers Analysis

The Buccaneers come in at number one again in the 2020 NFC South breakdown. Barrett alone had 19.5 sacks in 2019 and another 37 quarterback hits. Pierre-Paul added 8.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. These numbers are the highest combination in the entire NFC South.

Not far behind the Buccaneers are the Saints rushers, Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport. Jordan is widely regarded as one of the best pure defensive ends in the league. He contributed 15.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits in 2019. If not for Barrett’s amazing 2019, the Saints could very well have the top edge rushing unit. Davenport increased his sacks, tackles, and quarterback hits in his first two seasons. If he continues on this trajectory, the Saints duo will be hard to contend with.  

The Panthers come in third on the list, but well behind the Buccaneers and Saints. Brain Burns had a great rookie season in 2019 with 7.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits. He showed some great promise in 2019 and will look to improve on a very young Panthers defense. Weatherly is a veteran for the young Panthers going into his fifth NFL season, previously all with the Minnesota Vikings. Weatherly’s experience will help the defense overall, as well as his three sacks, nine quarterback hits, and five tackles for loss from 2019. 

The Atlanta Falcons come in fourth for the NFC South edge rusher rankings. Takkarist McKinley and Allen Bailey are a veteran duo but will need to improve in almost every statistic to keep up with the NFC South. They combined for 4.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits in 2019, easily the lowest total of any NFC South unit.

Linebackers

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  2. Atlanta Falcons
  3. Carolina Panthers
  4. New Orleans Saints

Linebackers Analysis

It’s no secret how good the Buccaneers front seven are, placing number one again for the 2020 NFC South breakdown. Devin White and Lavonte David averaged 107 tackles in 2019. This average well paces the NFC South. The averages place the Buccaneers duo at nearly the top in every major category including sacks and passes defended. 

Another bright spot with the Falcons defense is the linebackers trio Fowler, Jones, and Oluokun. The three are top-heavy as Fowler led the way by having the most sacks with 11.5. Fowler also had the third most passes defended. Jones contributes the most tackles with 110.  Oluokun is going into his third year and will need to take some steps forward in almost all statistical categories. 

The Panthers veteran unit places third. They added Whiteside this off-season who has had over 100 tackles in each of his past four seasons. Thompson had a great 2019 and will hope to continue his upswing. He had his career-high in tackles in 2019 and nearly his highest sack total. Carter is going into his third NFL season and will need to learn from the other two veterans to help the young Panthers defense. 

The weakest unit for the Saints defense is their linebacker unit. Demario Davis is regarded as one of the best linebackers in all of football but he will need some assistance from the other two starters, Nigel Bradham and Alex Anzalone. Anzalone only played two games in 2019 but flashed in his short time. Bradham is coming off a decent season with the Eagles where he had 61 tackles and five passes defended. This unit thrives on Demario Davis. He had the second-most tackles of any linebacker in the NFC South and by far the most passes defended with 12.

Cornerbacks

  1. New Orleans Saints
  2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  3. Carolina Panthers
  4. Atlanta Falcons

Cornerback Analysis

The Saints lead these cornerback rankings. Janoris Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore easily had the best pass percentage against them in 2019 with 55.7 and 50 percent, respectively. Lattimore has grown into one of the best cornerbacks in the NFC, only allowing 44 completions in the entire season. Meanwhile, Jenkins had five interceptions and 16 passes defended through the same season. 

There is a drop off to the rest of the NFC South cornerbacks. Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting with the Buccaneers come in second. These two corners are still young, with Davis being the elder at only three years in the NFL. The two did combine for four interceptions and 27 passes defended in 2019. The issue was the unit ranked 30th against the pass, allowing the third-most yards in the NFL. 

The Panthers get downgraded after losing starting corner James Bradberry to the New York Giants. The Panthers replaced Bradberry with Eli Apple, previously with the Giants and Saints. Apple had zero interceptions in 2019 and only four passes defended. He also allowed the third-highest completion percentage of any cornerback in the NFC South. Donte Jackson is coming off of a good 2019 season where he had three interceptions and eight passes defended in only 13 games. Apple will need to return to form for Panther’s success in 2020. 

The Falcons finish as the last place cornerback tandem in the NFC South with their young duo. Isaiah Oliver is entering his third NFL season and will play beside newly drafted A.J. Terrell. Terrell has all the measurable talent and played in many big games with the Clemson Tigers over his college career. Oliver started all 16 games for the Falcons in 2019 and improved in both passes defended and tackles.

Safeties

  1. New Orleans Saints
  2. Carolina Panthers
  3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  4. Atlanta Falcons

Safeties Analysis

Rounding out the 2020 NFC South breakdown for secondary is another top finish for the Saints. Malcolm Jenkins returns to New Orleans in his 11th NFL season alongside Marcus Williams who is going into his fourth season. Jenkins is a do-all safety with statistics across the board. In 2019 alone, he had 2.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, 81 tackles, and eight passes defended. Williams has a great season as well, accounting for four interceptions, one forced fumble, and 13 passes defended. The returning Jenkins vaults this unit to the top of the NFC South safeties. 

One of the new veteran units for the Panthers come in the form of their safeties. Journeyman Juston Burris is coming off a decent season with the Browns and headed into his fifth year of tenure. Tre Boston is going into his seventh NFL season, four of which have been with the Panthers. The duo did combine for 100 tackles but the Panthers still had the 20th most yards allowed for all NFC defenses in 2019. 

Another young safety duo is in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers drafted second-generation Antoine Winfield Jr. in this year’s draft. Jordan Whitehead is only entering his third NFL season but showed some promise in his second season. Whitehead improved in interceptions, passes defended, and completions allowed. Winfield will need to stay healthy to contribute. 

The Falcons finish these rankings. Keanu Neal has only played four games in the past two years. Damontae Kazee has played in 16 games for the Falcons in his previous three NFL seasons. He has been serviceable in that time, with 2018 being his best season. Kazee had seven interceptions and allowed a very low 53 percent completion percentage in 2018, but both numbers fell off in 2019. The unknown hurts the Falcons safety unit for 2020. 

Special Teams

  1. New Orleans Saints
  2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  3. Atlanta Falcons
  4. Carolina Panthers

Special Teams Analysis

The Saints might have the best kicker duo in the entire NFL and place first in the 2020 NFC South breakdown for special teams. Will Lutz has a division best 89 percent field goal average and only missed one extra point all 2019. He was also a perfect 16/16 in field goals under 40 yards. Thomas Morstead had a 46-yard punt average with an incredibly low 1.67 touchback percentage. Returner Deonte Harris made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro team in his rookie season as a returner, averaging over nine yards per punt return and nearly 27 yards per kick return.

Matt Gay and Bradley Pinion anchor the Buccaneers’ special teams unit. Gay had a good 77 percent field goal percentage but missed five extra points. Pinion had a good 2019, averaging 38 net yards per punt and slightly over five percent touchback rate. The returner unit is basically new going into 2020. Scotty Miller is in line to return punts after zero returns last year. Ogunbowale only had 12 kick returns in 2019.

The Falcons also have an inexperienced special teams unit. Younghoe Koo only played eight games in 2019 but did have a good last half of the year. He had an 88 percent field goal percentage and only missed one extra point. Sterling Hofrichter is a rookie out of Syracuse where he was an All-ACC player. Returner Brandon Powell only had four returns in 2019, contributing to the young unit. 

The Panthers have a slightly more veteran special teams unit, but kicker Joey Slye did not have as good of a year as the Falcon’s Koo. Slye had a 78 percent field goal percentage and missed four extra points. Joseph Charlton is a rookie out of South Carolina where he averaged 45 yards a punt. Pharoh Cooper is an experienced but average returner, totaling 700 total return yards in 2019.

Be sure to check out LWOPF’s 2020 NFC South breakdown on offense.

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