Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Time for the linebackers in our series of NFC South position rankings. I've lumped the outside linebackers in with the middle linebackers.
Four of the top five are middle linebackers with Carolina's Thomas Davis as the lone outside linebacker in the top five.
Jon Beason, Carolina. The best defensive player in the division.
Jonathan Vilma, New Orleans. Had a solid season last year, but should be much better with an improved defense around him.
Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay. The only proven building block as the Bucs overhaul their once-great defense.
Thomas Davis, Carolina. Has emerged as a playmaker after a rocky start to his career.
Curtis Lofton, Atlanta. Stood out in the middle as a rookie and will be counted on as an every-down player this year.
Stephen Nicholas, Atlanta. I see this guy as one of the division's breakout players this season.
Scott Fujita, New Orleans. Nothing fancy about him, but he does what the Saints ask.
Angelo Crowell, Tampa Bay. Bucs went after this guy hard in free agency, so he must be in the plans.
Na'il Diggs, Carolina. Doesn't stand out in any area, except he rarely makes mistakes and that's why the Panthers keep bringing him back.