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All NFC South Defensive Team

Bryan turns his attention to the defensive side of the ball, where the NFC South was surprisingly good last year, and builds the all-division team.

Bryan turns his attention to the defensive side of the ball, where the NFC South was surprisingly good last year, and builds the all-division team.

Unlike their offenses, the NFC South’s defenses were terrific in 2021 (with one outlier). Outside of the Falcons, every team ranked within the league’s upper-half in terms of yardage allowed. Surprisingly to the casual fan, the 5-12 Panthers were actually ranked second-best in the league. While they can’t elevate anemic offenses, this is a stingy division loaded with hard-hitting playmakers. Here’s the cream of the crop entering the 2022 season:

The NFC South Dream Team (Defense)

Defensive Ends: Cameron Jordan, Saints; Brian Burns, Panthers

Jordan, now one of the NFL’s elder statesmen at age 32, is a consistently elite pass-rusher with a real shot at enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. However, Cam still intends to irritate quarterbacks before he retires; the Saints star was ninth in the league in sacks (12.5) and 20th in pressures (34) last season. Burns is still young at 25, but he’s already made a name for himself as a well-rounded defensive end. Since entering the league in 2019, the Florida State alum is 13th in the NFL in sacks (25.5), and was named to his first Pro Bowl in January. While it’s hard to say Burns is truly elite at anything, he’s also above-average in just about every aspect of the game, making him an invaluable piece on Matt Rhule’s defense. 

Defensive Tackles: Grady Jarrett, Falcons; Vita Vea, Buccaneers 

Jarrett has played on some pretty miserable defenses over his seven-year career, but he certainly isn’t to blame. The two-time Pro Bowler had a so-so 2021, but that shouldn’t be enough to dismiss his stretch of elite play before then; since 2017, Jarrett is 12th in the league in tackles for loss, with Cameron Heyward and DeForest Buckner being the only defensive tackles ranked higher during that stretch. Vea, a four-year veteran, has also been a consistent contributor to Tampa Bay’s stout defensive line, making his first Pro Bowl last season. The lumbering 6-4, nearly-350-pound lineman’s contributions don’t always show up on the box score, but he makes an impact in just about every game he plays. Look no further than the Bucs’ run defense, which has limited opponents to an NFL-best 82.7 rushing yards per game since 2019.

Linebackers: Devin White, Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David, Buccaneers

If Vea gets credit for helping Tampa build an elite run defense, Tampa’s linebackers should as well. White and David are two of the league’s premier tacklers, blending rapid play recognition with a quick twitch and elite speed. Surprisingly, it took White three seasons before being named a Pro Bowler this year, but it won’t be his last; the LSU product has the talent to be the best linebacker in football, if he isn’t already. David may not be in his prime, but the 32-year old veteran is still playing at a high level on one of the league’s best defensive units. Barrett, the last piece of the Bucs’ linebacker trio, might be the best all-around pass rusher in the game. In 2021, he ranked inside the top 20 for sacks (15th), total blitzes (11th), hurries (18th), quarterback knockdowns (10th), and pressures (12th). Shout out to Shaq Thompson, who may have snuck onto the list if not for injuries last season.

Cornerbacks: A.J. Terrell, Falcons; Carlton Davis, Buccaneers

It was a breakout season for Terrell, who established himself as an elite corner without much help from Atlanta’s porous defense. Quarterbacks had a paltry QBR of 61.0 and a 50% completion percentage when throwing Terrell’s way (which wasn’t often). Davis makes the team over the likes of Marshon Lattimore and Donte Jackson off the strength of a fantastic 2021. The Bucs corner had the lowest completion percentage allowed of his career (55.1%) and was rewarded with a three-year, $45 million dollar extension to stay in Tampa.

Safeties: Antoine Winfield Jr., Buccaneers; Marcus Maye, Saints

Winfield Jr. is the glue that keeps the Bucs secondary together, even in the midst of a rash of injuries like last season. The former FSU Seminole chips in just about everywhere: He recorded two interceptions, 88 tackles, three fumble recoveries and two sacks last year. After Marcus Williams signed with the Ravens in free agency, the Saints wasted no time in bringing Maye over from the Jets. While the new Marcus has never been to the playoffs, he’s been one of the league’s best safeties over the past five years. New Orleans will have to hope that Maye’s career-low PFF score in 2021 was an aberration; given that he was playing on a terrible defense, expect a return to form.