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Defense’s Turn: Stacking Up Each Position Corps for the Saints Against the Rest of NFC South

Cut day 2019 has come, and it has gone. Many moves for our New Orleans Saints were not surprises, especially the moves involving starters. Making decisions between rotational players, special team contributors, and young rookies filled with potential made way for some interesting moves by the team. Those will be discussed later in the article, but the Saints weren’t the only team that had to make extremely tough decisions. Every team had to, in fact, including the other three in the NFC South. 

Considered one of the best divisions year-in and year-out in the NFL, the NFCS could produce three playoff teams in 2019. It’s all about consistency, and no other team but New Orleans has been able to keep their hat in that ring the last two seasons. If it weren’t for injuries last season, the Falcons could have been right in their tails. With improvements to their defense and a potentially-electric offense, the Panthers are going to be vying for a division title in 2019. Even Tampa Bay, who finished 5-11 last season and fired their head coach, will be hungry for any place better than third or fourth in the division 

No matter how you flip it, the division looks to be Uber competitive on paper on both sides of the ball. There are advantages for sure, some more glaring than others, but every team has a chance to at least compete for a wild card playoff spot, and the division winner will be crowned late in the year. Here’s how each team stacks up on paper for each defensive corps now that the official 2019 depth charts are out. 

Defensive Tackles

Saints: Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Malcom Brown, Taylor Stallworth, Mario Edwards Jr., Shy Tuttle

Falcons: Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davison, Jack Crawford, Deadrin Senat

Panthers: Kawann Short, Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Kyle Love, Vernon Butler, Efe Obada 

Buccaneers: Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea, William Gholston, Beau Allen, Rakeem Nuñez-Roches

Look at all of those names! That’s a total of seven first-round selections across the division. The Saints have two of them in Rankins and Brown. The former they drafted 12th overall in 2016; the latter was signed this offseason after four seasons in New England, the team who drafted him 32nd overall in 2015 out of Texas. Unfortunately, we won’t see these two together until at least week 4 due to Rankins recovering from an Achilles tear. He’s mad quick and significant process in terms of recovery, and is returning much sooner than men his size typically do. Onyemata, the other main reason the Saints finished first in rushing yards sacrificed per game, will be absent for the opening game as he faces a suspension. So the Saints will really need Brown, Edwards (who has been dealing with an injury), and Stallworth to step up early in the season. Tuttle, an UDFA, may see playing time much earlier than anticipated due to Edwards nagging injury. Also adding a first round pick on the line this offseason via signing is Carolina. McCoy comes over from division rival Tampa Bay, who cut the tenth-year, former third-overall pick earlier this year. He looks to wreck havoc next to Short and Poe, both two-time Pro Bowlers. Throw in veteran Kyle Love and another former first-round selection in Butler, and the Panthers will have a stout defensive front that looks to improve upon their 12th-best rushing defense of 2018.

However, the Falcons have Grady Jarrett, putting them in the conversation for top corps in the category no matter what. The former fifth-round pick out of Clemson became the third highest paid defensive tackle this offseason after inking a four-year contract extension guaranteeing him $42.5 million with a total value of $68 million. He has 10.0 sacks in the past two seasons combined, including a career high 6.0 last season to go along with three forced fumbles. He will be paired with Davison, a former Saint, inside with decent depth. Speaking of depth, there’s the Buccaneers. They swapped out McCoy for Suh this offseason, saving roughly $3M. They sign the veteran right after the season in which he helped the Los Angeles Rams make it to the Super Bowl. Instead of DPOY Aaron Donald, Suh is now paired with Vea, last year’s 12th overall pick. He had 3.0 sacks in his rookie campaign, and will most likely be even better his sophomore season. Behind them is veteran Buccaneer Gholston, coveted free agent signing from 2018 in Allen, and journeyman Nuñez-Roches. They will definitely look to improve upon the eight worst rushing defense (124 yards per game) from 2018.

When Rankins and Onyemata are on the field together, the Saints are absolutely stacked at DT. It’s tough to not name them the best in the division, but the other three teams are so deep and prominent upfront as well that it’s a toss up. The NFC South could easily finish 2019 as the division who sacrifices the least amount of rushing yards. 

Edge Rushers

Saints: Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, Trey Hendrickson, Wes Horton

Falcons: Takk McKinley, Allen Bailey, Vic Beasley Jr., Adrian Clayborn, John Comisky

Panthers: Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin, Brian Burns, Marquis Haynes, Christian Miller

Buccaneers: Carl Nassib, Shaquil Barrett, Anthony Nelson, Demone Harris

Quarterbacks really aren’t safe here in the South, unless you have an offensive line like the Saints do. They also had the best defensive line tandem/edge rushers a season ago, finished atop the division in season sacks (5th in the league). New Orleans defensive end group in third 4-3 defensive setup is let by four-time All-Pro Cam Jordan. Jordan has a combined 25.0 sacks the last two seasons, but will be without his running mate for most of those years as Alex Okafor signed with the Chiefs in March. Instead, he will be accomplices by 6’7” Davenport, entering his second season after the Saints traded up for him in the first round of 2018. He showed extremely promising flashes in his rookie year, but has been out-worked by stud third-year end Hendrickson. He and UDFA Horton will be important rotational players for the Saints, as they look to keep the pressure up. The only edge corps close to the Saints are the Bucs, but even they finished T-19th in sacks last season (38). They’re returning fellow 6’7” beast Nassib, who is only entering his fourth season and has improved quite a bit. They also bring back Harris, who was undrafted in 2018, and insert free agent signing Barrett, who won Super Bowl L with Denver, and 2019 fourth-round pick out of Iowa in Nelson. 

Atlanta (24th) and Carolina (27th) both finished in the bottom-eight last season in terms of total defensive sacks. The Falcons have three former first round picks in their edge corps, and have yet to see major production. Clayborn (20th overall in 2011) is a bit past his prime stride, while Beasley Jr. (8th overall in 2015) has yet to prove his potential and McKinley (26th overall in 2017) is coming into his own it seems. Bailey looks to add more veteran presence to the group. For Carolina, they’re trying to follow the Falcons formula from 2018 with using Irvin as a starter. The Super Bowl champ did not have much success in Atlanta, and joins another 3-4 defense, this time alongside starter Mario Addison. Addison is a fellow veteran and journeyman, who had 9.5 sacks in 2016 for Carolina. Eccentric rookie Brian Burns seemed to be a draft day steal at 16th overall for the Panthers, but they may have to wait for his development a bit longer to unleash the beast. Miller is also a rookie, while Haynes is a fourth-round pick from 2018, creating a nice mix of veteran-and-youthful outside line backers.

The Saints have another clear advantage here, but it could be less significant in 2019. With injuries and suspension to deal with, plus most of the rest of the division improving, New Orleans will have to be on top of their A-game if they want to finish as sack Kings again in the NFCS.

Linebackers

Saints: Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone, Kiko Alonso, Kaden Elliss, Craig Robertson

Falcons: Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Jermaine Grace, Foyesade Oluokun

Panthers: Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson, Jermaine Carter, Andre Smith, Jordan Kunaszyk

Buccaneers: Devin White, Lavonte David, Deon Buchanan, Kevin Minter, Jack Cichy

This group for the Saints was definitely the most improved in 2018. Remember the name Demario Davis, as he is the most underrated player in the entire NFL and it needs to stop. The 2018 free agent prize gave his new team 110 tackles and 5.0 sacks in his first season in New Orleans. Davis will lineup yet again with the always athletic Alex Anzalone who occupies the middle, and the every-improving 2017 signee A.J. Klein. Last week the team swapped second-year linebacker Vince Biegel to the Dolphins for Kiko Alonso. The DROY runner-up of 2012 is coming off a 125-tackle season (career-high) and will look to possibly compete for a starting job, but will no doubt see heavy rotation with Elliss, the seventh-round pick out of Idaho. The “king” of backers in this division still belongs to Kuechley for now, even if he continues to deal with injuries. He played in all 16 games last season, though, compiling 130 tackles including a career-high 20 tackles for loss. He’s been paired with fellow first-round pick Thompson since 2015; they combined for 5.5 sacks last season. Carolina also brings back second-year inside linebackers Carter and Smith.

The Falcons really aren’t too far behind either team in terms of talent at linebacker. They’ve just yet to show it to the extent that the Saints have with Davis or the Panthers have with Kuechly. Their stud inside is former LSU Tiger Deion Jones, who has given the Saints their fair share of fits already in his young career. Him and Campbell will be together yet again, as the 2016 fourth-round pick led the team in tackles last season (94) as Jones missed 10 games with a foot injury. Grace is a throw-in depth backer with potential, but limited action since he went undrafted in 2017. Speaking of former LSU standout linebackers, Devin White hopes to put the Buccaneer defense on the map again. He will command the defense alongside veteran Tampa starter Lavonte Davis. The team was fortunate to land White, the 2018 Butkus Award winner for best NCAA linebacker, since they lost Kwon Alexander to the 49ers in free agency. White and David will look to command the middle of their defense with former safety and excellent player under Bruce Arians’ system Buchanan. 

All in all, with Davis as the leader, any defense can be one of the best in all of football. He proved it last year and likely will again in 2019, as the Saints try to become a tackling factory by bringing in Alonso. The Panthers have a couple of top players, and the Falcons have a very respectable linebacker group. The Buccaneers will be great in a few season if things go according to plan, so the Saints yet again with another category. 

Cornerbacks

Saints: Marshon Lattimore, Eli Apple, PJ Williams, Patrick Robinson, Ken Crawley, Justin Hardee

Falcons: Isaiah Oliver, Desmond Trufant, Damontae Kazee, Blidi Wreh-Wilson

Panthers: James Bradberry, Donte Jackson, Ross Cockrell, Javien Elliot

Buccaneers: Carlton Davis, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jamel Dean, M.J. Stewart, Sean Murphy-Bunting

Dare I crown the Saints yet again in this corps? Yes, they are crowned, partially by default but partially due to pure talent. Lattimore, of course, is one of the, if not THE, best cornerback under the age of 25, and the Saints were able to pair him with fellow Buckeye and top-11 draft pick in Apple last season. The two combined for four interceptions in their 10 games together. The trade was executed due to injuries to Robinson and Crawley; now in 2019, Robinson seems to have recovered well from his leg injury and Crawley has not only recovered but improved this offseason like never before. He and special teams ace Hardee will be depth corner for a fairly fine-tuned Saints corps. Another team bringing back both its outside starting corners is Carolina, who saw Bradberry and Jackson start all 16 games together in 2018. Both helped the Panthers become the best passing defense in the division, and 18th overall in the league. They also bring back Cockrell, and take on former-Buc Elliot to make up a decent, young corps at cornerback. 

As Carolina finished 18th in defensive lads yards, the Saints finished 29th, but mainly because quite a few teams had to pass quite a bit to try and catch up during games. The Falcons and Bucs finished one and two spots ahead of New Orleans, respectively. So it really wasn’t a great year for these secondaries in 2018. Luckily for the Falcons, the improved a little, beginning with a new starter in second-year player Isaiah Oliver from Houston. The 6’ corner will start opposite Trufant, who was drafted who was selected in the first round by Atlanta back in 2013. The two hope to combined for more than just one interception like last season, but their 19 total passes deflected is something to talk about for sure. Kazee and Wreh-Wilson return to the Falcons and hope to provide depth to an otherwise struggling secondary. Speaking of struggling, the Bucs have not been able to get much going at cornerback since Ronde Barber retired. Davis, Hargreaves, and Dean are all returning to the team after a couple of abysmal years in Tampa. They could improve, as the potential is there: Hargreaves was selected 11th overall in 2016, Davis was a second-round pick and Dean a third. Murphy-Bunting was one of my favorite prospects for the 2019 draft, and he could help right away with locking down some receivers. However, it’ll take a lot more than that to get this corps on the right track. 

There are a lot of interesting and talented names on this list, but every team outside of New Orleans has too many “prove-it-now” players to be confident in their ability to be great this season. The Panthers are a close second, and their corners will be crucial in keeping that defense thriving. 

Safeties

Saints: Vonn Bell, Marcus Williams, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Saquan Hampton, J.T. Gray

Falcons: Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, Sharrod Neasman, Kemal Ishmael

Panthers: Eric Reid, Tre Boston, Natrell Jamerson, Rashaan Gaulden

Buccaneers: Mike Edwards, Jordan Whitehead, Darian Stewart, Justin Evans

Youth is in an abundance for this group. There are a total of 13 players on that list who are 24 years old or younger, and all but Stewart (31) are 28 years old or younger. If healthy, the Falcons could vie for the second-best safety corps in the division, but on paper the Saints have the advantage across the board. Bell and Williams are entering their second season as a safety tandem, a stat only the Falcons can also claim true in the division. Even though they only combined for two interceptions last season (both by Williams), they rarely got burned and combined for 147 tackles in 2018. There are not too many positives you can say about this corps when they gave up the fourth-most passing yards in the league last season. That’s why the team drafted both Gardner-Johnson and Hampton in April. Hampton can be a backup ballhawk to Williams down the line, and CGJ is an aggressive, high football-IQ safety who can set up and make plays inside the the box, in the slot, and the deep-half of the field. The Saints kept J.T. Gray over special teams standout Chris Banjo, but the athleticism is what the coaching staff needed, and his experience will help fill any holes. The other returning starting tandem is Allen and Neal for Atlanta, both of which suffered unfortunate injuries in 2018. The team lost Neal to a torn ACL week one, and Allen to a torn Achilles week three against the Saints. Both will be back with a vengeance, with familiar faces backing them up. Neasman is entering his third season with the Falcons while Ishmael is entering his seventh. 

The very young duo of Edwards and Whitehead is very intriguing to me. The former comes out of Kentucky being one of the hardest-hitting rookie safeties of his class. Whitehead was drafted last season out of Pitt, and started 11 games his rookie year to accumulate 76 tackles and four pass deflections. It will be fun and interesting to watch them be full-time NFL starters. They’re backed up by Evans, who ha sprite starting experience with Tampa Bay, and Stewart, who is 31 and has plenty of starting experience around the NFL. Carolina now rolls in with Reid as their best safety after taking a gamble on him a couple seasons ago. After waiting months for a team to garner interest in him, the Panthers reunited with Boston, who the originally drafted in 2014. He’s now starting alongside Reid after one season with the Cardinals. Former (training camp only) Saint Jamerson has found an important role with the Panthers with fellow second-year player Gaulden looks to contribute as well. Carolina’s secondary is just flat out mediocre.

By default, the Saints have another upper hand on defense. Reid and Boston could have stellar seasons for the first time in awhile, Edwards and Whitehead could be the best rookie safety tandem ever, and Allen and Neal could recover miraculously from their injuries and play at Pro Bowl levels. There’s no telling if any of that, or anything close, will happen, so on paper right now, led by ballhawk Williams and hammer Bell, the Saints have the best safety corps in the NFC South.