NFC South's next defensive superstar?

July, 12, 2012
7/12/12
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In its infancy, the NFC South was a division filled with defensive superstars.

In the division's first year of existence (2002), Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Simeon Rice led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title. The Bucs were so good on defense that they won it all with Brad Johnson, an average quarterback at best.

In 2003, Carolina defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins emerged as the second coming of Rice and Sapp. With a little help from linebacker Dan Morgan, who was relatively healthy that season, they carried the Panthers all the way to the Super Bowl -- and that came with Jake Delhomme in his first full season as a starting quarterback.

But Sapp, Lynch and Rice eventually left the Bucs. Jenkins was dominant for a bit, but his career flamed out after a couple of knee injuries. The last true defensive superstars disappeared from the NFC South when the Bucs unceremoniously released Brooks after the 2008 season and Peppers signed with the Chicago Bears after the 2009 season. There hasn’t been anything close to a dominant defensive player in the division since. The Saints won their Super Bowl in 2009 with defensive standouts Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Darren Sharper having nice seasons, but quarterback Drew Brees was the reason for that title.

Could this be the year the NFC South returns to its roots and a dominant defensive player emerges? Of course, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and rules favor offense. But there are several prospects in the division who could turn out to be the NFC South’s next defensive superstar. Here's a rundown:

[+] EnlargeSean Weatherspoon
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesWith his athleticism and leadership skills, Sean Weatherspoon has become the focal point of Atlanta's defense.
Sean Weatherspoon, linebacker, Falcons. Based on what the Falcons have said about Weatherspoon this offseason, you would think he already is a Pro Bowl regular. He has had two promising seasons but really hasn’t done anything special, so maybe the Falcons are getting ahead of themselves here.

Weatherspoon is a very athletic outside linebacker. His potential and leadership skills were partially why Atlanta was willing to part with Curtis Lofton, even though that probably means a dropoff at middle linebacker. New coordinator Mike Nolan apparently wants to build his defense around Weatherspoon. That might not be a bad idea. The great Tampa Bay defenses were built around Brooks, not the guy in the middle. Of course, that concept only works if Weatherspoon turns out to be the next Brooks.

Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Panthers. Carolina didn’t have a desperate need at linebacker with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis returning from injuries and James Anderson already in place. There were more obvious needs elsewhere. But the Panthers locked in on Kuechly with the No. 9 overall pick in this year’s draft.

The Panthers have yet to declare if Kuechly or Beason will open the season in the middle. But it’s clear the Panthers have huge plans for Kuechly. Coach Ron Rivera comes from a defensive background and he needed to reload his defense. He drafted Kuechly to build a defense around him.

Don’t underestimate the influence of general manager Marty Hurney on this pick. Hurney was around during the Morgan days, and he’s one of many people in Carolina’s building who believe Morgan would be headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame if he had been able to stay healthy. In Kuechly, the Panthers envision a healthy and young Morgan.

Mark Barron, safety, Buccaneers. Rivera didn’t get to use his first draft pick on a defensive player because the Panthers had to take quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. But Greg Schiano already had Josh Freeman at QB when he took over in Tampa Bay, allowing Schiano to focus on defense. He selected Barron with the No. 7 pick.

Conventional wisdom says that might be a little high to draft a safety. But with passing games dominating, maybe conventional wisdom must change. We don’t know exactly what Schiano’s defense will look like, but investing so much in Barron is a pretty strong clue that safety will be a very important position.

Malcolm Jenkins, safety, Saints. Scouts and coaches have predicted greatness from Jenkins since he came into the league. Entering his fourth season, he did not have an interception last season. But Jenkins has physical talent and a great work ethic, and I think this season he will put everything together. In former coordinator Gregg Williams’ system, Jenkins often had to blitz or cover for other defensive backs who blitzed. In Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, Jenkins will be allowed to simply play center field, which is what he does best.

Adrian Clayborn, defensive end, Buccaneers. In a rookie year in which everything around him went wrong, Clayborn put together a nice season in 2011. He had 7.5 sacks and forced three fumbles. If he was able to do that amid chaos, he should be able to do much more in Schiano’s new world. Of course, it would help if Gerald McCoy and Brian Price could stay healthy and provide some help at defensive tackle.

Charles Johnson, defensive end, Panthers. He just turned 26 and, of all the players on this list, he has done the most so far. Johnson had 20.5 sacks the past two seasons for a team that often played from behind. Carolina has a good offense now, and the addition of Kuechly and the return of injured players should help the defense. If Johnson's sack total reaches the high double digits, he could become what Peppers once was -- a dominant NFC South defensive player.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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