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How to Build the NFC South’s Best Defense Team by Position

How to Build the NFC South’s Best Defense Team by Position

The NFC South has been widely regarded as the NFL’s worst division in recent years. While the AFC East and the three worst teams in the AFC West and AFC South deserve consideration, the numbers are hard to argue with.

Over the past two seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won the division with records of 8-9 in 2022 and 9-8 last year. The entire division has a combined record of just 56-80 over those two years, a winning percentage of .412. Only the Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints had winning records, both at 9-8 last season.

The NFC South isn’t expected to change much in the 2024-25 season. However, there is still some strong talent on three teams in the division. If we want to build the best defense in the South by position, this is what the roster could look like.

New Orleans Saints

Dec. 19, 2021; Cameron Jordan (94), defensive end of the New Orleans Saints, sacks Tom Brady (12), quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

December 19, 2021; New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) sacks Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) / Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The stats don’t show that. New Orleans had just 34 sacks last season, the fourth-fewest in the NFL. Only 16 of those came from their edge rushers, 8.5 from Carl Granderson and three in one game from Tanoh Kpassagnon. The Saints also ranked just 22nd in the running game, a year after finishing 24th in that category.

This pick is based on potential. Cameron Jordan is a future Hall of Famer looking to bounce back after dealing with injuries last season. After a breakout year, Granderson looks to build on his momentum. Second-year DT Bryan Bresee looked like a potential perennial Pro Bowler at times as he leads an athletic interior group of Nathan Shepherd and Khalen Saunders as a rookie. In addition, the Saints acquired 2020 second overall draft pick Chase Young this offseason.

While the unit looks potentially disruptive, it is also fraught with questions and concerns. What if Jordan was on a steep decline and not just slowed by injuries? Was last year the peak of Bresee or Granderson or part of an upward curve? Can Young rebound from offseason surgery and show why he was drafted second after being just average for his first four years?

Despite all the questions, this is still a deeper and more talented unit than the lines in Tampa Bay, Atlanta or Carolina. Whether New Orleans’ line lives up to that potential is one of the major factors that will determine whether the Saints have a successful season in 2024.

New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) chases Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9)

New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) chases Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) / Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

This was a close game. Tampa Bay has Lavonte David, two potentially solid pass rushers in Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Yaya Darby, and a secretly good draft pick in OLB Chris Braswell. Atlanta has former Saint Kaden Elliss, surging ILB Troy Andersen, and athletic rushers Lorenzo Carter and Arnold Ebikete on the outside. The Panthers have two versatile inside LBs in Shaq Thompson and Josey Jewell, complemented by outside pass rushers Jadeveon Clowney and DJ Wonnum.

New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis remains one of the NFL’s best all-around defenders. Davis, San Francisco’s Lavonte David and Fred Werner are the league’s top three linebackers. In addition to Davis, New Orleans also has Pete Werner. Werner can struggle in space, but is an excellent run defender with outstanding feel. The Saints also signed former Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. this offseason. Gay will improve the athleticism of the entire front seven and is an every-down defender who is as effective in coverage as he is against the run.

Davis and Werner combined for 214 tackles last year, including 16 for loss, and 134 solo stops. The Saints need more big plays from Werner, but Gay also brings playmaking ability to the unit. As long as Davis, now 35, doesn’t experience a precipitous drop-off in performance, this trio of linebackers could be one of the best in the league.

New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints Cornerback Paulson Adebo (29) intercepts a pass to Tampa Bay Buccaneers Wide Receiver Mike Evans (13)

New Orleans Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo (29) intercepts a pass to Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans (13) / Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

That was anything but close. In fact, the Saints have arguably the best cornerback quartet in the entire NFL. Marshon Lattimore is a first-class shutdown corner who can take out the opponent’s best receiver in one-on-one situations. After an outstanding third season, Paulson Adebo seems ready to move up to the top cornerback league.

Alontae Taylor had some inconsistency in the slot in his sophomore year, but had a stellar rookie season and should rebound in a big way. Joining him is rookie Kool-Aid McKinstry, a second-round pick out of Alabama who came into the draft with first-round ratings.

Even without a consistent pass rush, the Saints ranked 10th in passing, allowing fewer than 208 yards per game through the air and holding opposing passers to just 59% completion percentage. Keep in mind that this was even without the injured Lattimore for the final seven games of the year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) is sacked by Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31)

Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young (9) is sacked by Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) / Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta has a real star in Jessie Bates III. New Orleans has the instinctive playmaker Tyrann Mathieu. However, every team has questions about depth at that position. Tampa Bay has no such questions at that position.

With apologies to Bates and a few others, Antoine Winfield Jr. is arguably the best all-around safety in the NFL today. Winfield has three interceptions, which is a career high, and six forced fumbles, which is an NFL high. In 2023, he also recorded six sacks and six tackles for loss on 122 total stops and could also cover the slot effectively.

After two years with the Jets, Jordan Whitehead rejoins Winfield in the Buccaneers’ secondary, giving the team additional defensive cohesion. Whitehead is an underrated player who would be the best playmaker in most defensive backfields. Joining the two is promising rookie Tykee Smith, a game-winning defender from a stellar defense in Georgia who will likely be Tampa Bay’s nickelback.

Later this week, we’ll take a look at the best offensive positions in the NFC South.

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