In this latest series from Last Word on Sports the NFL department will be selecting the best players in each division, by position. The focus of this article is the defensive and special teams players in the NFC South for the 2020 season.
2020 NFC South All-Division Team: Defense/Special Teams
Defensive End: Cameron Jordan
Cameron Jordan (ranked number 23 on the NFL Top 100) isn’t just the best defensive end in the division, he’s one of the best defensive ends in the league. Jordan has played nine seasons in the NFL (all with the New Orleans Saints) and he hasn’t missed a game in that time. In 144 games in his career Jordan has tallied 87 sacks, two interceptions, one touchdown, 47 passes defensed, 10 forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries.
He has made five Pro Bowls, including the last three seasons, and was a First-Team All-Pro in 2017. In 2019 Jordan posted a career high 15.5 sacks and he is now second all time in Saints history in sacks.
Defensive Tackle: Grady Jarrett
Grady Jarrett (ranked number 91 in the NFL Top 100) might be undersized, but he has a lot of talent and a great motor. He was one of the best players, if not the best, on the Clemson Tigers 2014 defense. Jarrett sacked Tom Brady three times in Super Bowl LI and had the New England Patriots not completed that miraculous comeback, Jarrett most likely would have been named the game’s MVP.
After the 2018 season the Falcons signed Jarrett to a four-year deal worth $68 million with $42.5 million guaranteed. At the time Jarrett inked that deal, only two other interior defensive linemen, Aaron Donald (the best in the league at his position) and Fletcher Cox were paid more than Jarrett.
In his five seasons in the league, Jarrett has recorded a total of 21.5 sacks, and increased his number of sacks each season. In 2019 Jarrett tallied 7.5 sacks and 69 tackles (12 for loss) and was named to the Pro Bowl.
Defensive Tackle: Vita Vea
The Atlanta Falcons probably have the best rotation of defensive tackles in the division, thanks mainly to Jarrett, but there are other talented tackles in the division and Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea are two of them. Suh has played 10 seasons in the league with the Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and has made the Pro Bowl five times and been named a First-Team All-Pro three times. Vea has played only two seasons in the NFL, both with the Bucs, so he doesn’t have the same body of work as Suh, but he is younger, has a higher upside, and is the better player right now. In his first two seasons in the league Vea has tallied 5.5 sacks, 63 tackles (eight for a loss) and 16 quarterback hits in 29 games (nine starts).
Defensive End: Marcus Davenport
Cameron Jordan is the best defensive end in the division and one of the best in the league. But who is the next best defensive end in the NFC South? That honor probably goes to Marcus Davenport. Davenport has played two seasons in the NFL, both with the Saints. In those two seasons he has played in 26 games (13 starts) and has put up 10.5 sacks, 53 tackles (11 for a loss) and 28 quarterback hits.
The Saints drafted Davenport in 2018 after giving up two first-round picks to move up to select him. His rookie season, while not terrible, had many thinking he would be a bust. That talk ended up being premature as Davenport proved what he was capable of in his second season, before he missed the last three games due to injury. If Davenport remains healthy and he continues to improve as he did from his rookie to second season, he could absolutely prove to be the second best defensive end in the division, especially with opposing teams game planning for Jordan.
Outside Linebacker: Shaquil Barrett
Shaquil Barrett (ranked number 32 on the NFL Top 100) and the Bucs failed to reach a deal before the deadline this off-season so he will play the 2020 season under the franchise tag. Barrett, who is classified as an outside linebacker, is set to make $15.88 million in 2020, but he did file a grievance to be classified as a defensive end (he would then make $17.79 million in 2020).
Barrett spent his first five seasons with the Denver Broncos and in 2019, his first with the Bucs, he recorded 19.5 sacks (career high, led the NFL), one interception, six forced fumbles and 58 tackles (19 for a loss) and he made his first Pro Bowl.
Inside Linebacker: Demario Davis
Demario Davis (ranked number 67 in the NFL Top 100) has spent eight seasons in the NFL (the last two with the Saints). He is one of the best three-down linebackers in the league and he has been able to really shine in his first two seasons with the Saints. In 2018 (his first in New Orleans) he had a career-high PFF grade of 74.6 and then improved that number to 90.1 last season. That 90.1 grade was second-best among qualifying linebackers.
In 2019 Davis recorded four sacks, 111 tackles (11 for a loss), one interception and 12 passes defended and he was a First-Team All-Pro.
Outside Linebacker: Shaq Thompson
Shaq Thompson is currently dealing with a groin injury, but when healthy, he is one of the better linebackers in the division. In previous seasons Thompson played behind and learned from other high profile and talented linebackers, including Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, but now Thompson will be asked to take on more of a leadership role with the Carolina Panthers.
Thompson has played five seasons, all with the Panthers, and in 70 games he has recorded an interception, 12 passes defended, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 9.5 sacks, 356 tackles (29 for a loss) and 20 quarterback hits.
Inside Linebacker: Lavonte David
Lavonte David (ranked number 100 on the NFL Top 100) has played eight seasons in the NFL, all with the Bucs, and was named a First-Team All-Pro in 2013 and to the Pro Bowl in 2015. For his career David has amassed 1,008 tackles (116 for a loss), 11 interceptions, 21 forced fumbles, 14 fumble recoveries and 22.5 sacks.
David is entering the final year of a five-year extension and he is set to make $10.75 in base salary. The Bucs are currently trying to sign him to a long-term deal.
Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore
Marshon Lattimore (ranked number 76 on the NFL Top 100) has played three seasons in the NFL (all with the Saints) and has made the Pro Bowl two of those seasons. In 43 games Lattimore has tallied eight interceptions (one for a touchdown), 44 passes defended, five forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and 168 tackles.
Stephon Gilmore may the best cornerback in the league, but Lattimore is the best corner in the NFC South and arguably a top-five cornerback in the NFL.
Free Safety: Malcolm Jenkins
Tre Boston has continued to get better since he was drafted in 2014, after spending his first three seasons in Carolina, 2017 with the Los Angeles Chargers, and 2018 with the Arizona Cardinals before returning to Carolina last season. But Malcolm Jenkins is the pick here. Jenkins spent his first five seasons in New Orleans (won a Super Bowl) and the next six with the Philadelphia Eagles (won another Super Bowl) before re-joining the Saints this off-season.
For his career, Jenkins has tallied 17 picks (six touchdowns), 95 passes defended, 18 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries (one touchdown), 10 sacks, 874 tackles (41 for a loss) and 27 quarterback hits. Signing Jenkins this off-season will end up being a really intelligent move by the Saints.
Strong Safety: Marcus Williams
Keanu Neal is talented, and he made the Pro Bowl in 2017, but he’s only been in the league four seasons and missed all but four games over the last two seasons. Whether or not his surgically-repaired knee and achilles hold up going forward is a big question mark. Juston Burris, who will likely start at strong safety for the Panthers in 2020, has only 11 career starts thus far, but he has played in 52 NFL games. During his career, Burris has played for the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns before joining the Panthers this off-season. In 2019, while with Cleveland, Burris had four interceptions, 14 passes defended, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one sack and 71 tackles.
But while Marcus Williams has only played three NFL seasons, all with the Saints, but he is one of the better safeties in the division. He usually plays free safety for the Saints, but with Malcolm Jenkins back in New Orleans, it is possible Williams moves to the strong safety spot. More than likely the Saints will try to keep both Jenkins and Williams on the field as much as possible.
Cornerback: Janoris Jenkins
The Atlanta Falcons have a lot of potential at secondary, including rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell, who the team drafted in 2020. But it is difficult to make Terrell the pick here when he hasn’t even played a single down in the NFL, especially when this off-season has been anything but business as usual.
Janoris Jenkins is yet another piece of what could be one of the best defensive backfields in the league in 2020. And Jenkins and Lattimore make up one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL. Last season Jenkins played for both the New York Giants and Saints and he had five interceptions, 16 passes defended, and 61 tackles in 15 games.
Kicker: Wil Lutz
Wil Lutz is one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL. In 2019 Lutz finished the season with the seventh highest field goal conversion rate in the league. Younghoe Koo was a good field goal kicker last season, but he wasn’t the guy for 50+ yard attempts and he was only okay on kickoffs. Bucs kicker Matt Gay was excellent at kickoffs last season, but he was less than stellar at field goals.
Punter: Thomas Morstead
Thomas Morstead posted the league’s eighth highest average yards per punt last season. Michael Palardy is also a reliable punter and he had the 10th-highest average yards per punt in the league in 2019. Veteran Ryan Allen is now in Atlanta and rookie Sterling Hofrichter looks to be the real deal (and could handle long field goals and maybe, ultimately replace Koo). Right now, Morstead is the best at the position in the division.
Kick/Punt Returner: Deonte Harris
Deonte Harris may only be a 5-foot-6 wide receiver out of Division II program, Assumption College and he may never make a significant impact as a receiver, but Harris is an incredible returner. In college he set an NCAA record with 14 combined touchdown returns. In 2019, his rookie campaign, Harris had 982 total return yards on 60 tries in 14 games. He also added a punt return touchdown to his impressive numbers. Harris isn’t just the best returner in the NFC South, he is one of the best returners in the entire NFL.
That is the breakdown of the 2020 NFC South All-Division Team on defense.
Click here for the NFC South All-Division team for the offense.