- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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It’s trendy and fun to debate which NFC South team has the best offense.
Is it Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints or Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons? Heck, you can even look at all the offensive talent Carolina and Tampa Bay have and throw the Panthers and Buccaneers into the conversation.
But trendy and fun will only get you so far. Even in this day and age, you still must play defense once in a while. Especially if you’re a team in the NFC South. The division teams must face each other twice, as well as Seattle’s Russell Wilson, New England’s Tom Brady and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick this season.
Maybe the more practical and important debate is: Which team has the best defense in the NFC South? No defense in the division was great last season. To win the division -- or do much of anything else -- this season, some NFC South defense must at least be halfway decent.
So which defense is the best?
I’m not going to even venture a guess right now because there are too many variables that must play out. I can see reasons why any of the four defenses could be the division’s best. I also can see reasons why each couldn’t.
Let’s take a look at the ceiling and the floor for each of the NFC South defenses:
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: Coordinator Mike Nolan is one of the game’s better defensive minds. His defensive system might really take hold in Atlanta in his second season. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is a budding star and is the centerpiece. The Falcons got a little younger at defensive end by replacing John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora.
Nolan might get a little more creative and use some more 3-4 looks. He also might be able to get more aggressive because he has fresh legs at cornerback after the Falcons drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are emerging as one of the league’s best safety tandems. There’s enough talent for this defense to be very good.
Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The Falcons were No. 24 in total defense (No. 21 against the run and No. 23 against the pass) last season. Umenyiora is on the downside of his career, too, and it’s not as if the Falcons have a lot of other proven pass-rushers.
The young cornerbacks could take some lumps early on. Problems covering the tight end were exposed in the playoffs last season, and the rest of the league got to watch.
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: In terms of pure talent, I think Carolina has the best front seven in the division. The arrival of rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei could put the Panthers over the top. Lotulelei is the kind of wide body who’s going to make everyone around him better.
Lotulelei is going to keep blockers off linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. He also is going to take blocking away from defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who already were pretty good at getting after the quarterback.
Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: As much as I can see the front seven being very good, I can see the secondary being very bad. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble is gone, and I don’t see anything close to a true No. 1 cornerback on this roster. The picture isn’t much brighter at safety.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: New coordinator Rob Ryan is going to bring swagger and an aggressive attitude. That can only help a unit that ranked No. 32 in total defense last year.
More importantly, Ryan is going to bring a 3-4 scheme. That’s the defensive system that seems to be having leaguewide success these days. The Saints have some good individual talent on defense with players such as end Cameron Jordan and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro should make an immediate impact.
Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The defense was a mess under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo last season, and I’m not sure simply changing schemes will solve everything. Outside of Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis, it’s not as if the Saints have added a lot of big-time talent this offseason.
It could take more than one season for Ryan’s defense to really turn the corner.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: On paper, I think Tampa Bay might have more talent than any other defense in the division. After ranking No. 32 against the pass last season, the Bucs went out and got cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Johnthan Banks and safety Dashon Goldson. Linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are very good.
Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: It seems as if the Bucs are pinning a lot of their hopes on Clayborn and Bowers. Both have already dealt with injuries and are not that experienced.
If the pass rush isn’t effective, all those upgrades in the secondary might not matter very much.