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All-NFC South team: Defense

12/29/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

We started the All-NFC South team with the offense earlier today. Now, it's time for the defense.

We'll have specialists, coaching and front office a bit later.

Defensive end: Julius Peppers, Panthers.
He bounced back nicely after a hugely-disappointing 2007 season. With the Panthers cleaning house and going with role players on the rest of the defensive line, Peppers got back to superstar status. It also might have helped that this was a contract year.

Defensive end: John Abraham, Falcons.
One of the smartest things coach Mike Smith did was make Abraham a part-time player. Abraham's 30 and has a history of injuries. The Falcons cut him down to about 50-percent of the plays and made sure he was on the field for most passing downs. He responded with 16.5 sacks.

Defensive tackles: Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons.
He stepped up and was a big reason why Atlanta's defensive line was a lot better than most people expected.

Defensive tackles: Sedrick Ellis, Saints.
He's far from a finished product. But Ellis showed enough bright spots to suggest he can become a dominant defensive tackle in a division that doesn't have any others besides Babineaux.

Linebacker: Jon Beason, Panthers.
He showed his big rookie season was no fluke and became the unquestioned leader of Carolina's defense.

Linebacker: Barrett Ruud, Buccaneers.
He emerged as the best player on Tampa Bay's defense and should help ease he transition of a defense that's moving from old to young.

Linebacker: Jonathan Vilma, Saints.
New Orleans still had plenty of defensive problems. But the arrival of Vilma gave the Saints a strong presence in the middle of the defense. Getting back into a 3-4 defense helped Vilma's career get back on track. Yes, I know Vilma, Ruud and Beason are all middle linebackers. But they're the three best linebackers in this division.

Cornerback: Chris Gamble, Panthers.
Carolina rewarded Gamble with a $53 million contract around midseason. Gamble's already the division's best cornerback and he's still getting better.

Cornerback: Chris Houston, Falcons.
Atlanta unloaded DeAngelo Hall before the season and that thrust Houston into the No. 1 cornerback role. Houston responded nicely and showed he can cover top receivers.

Safety: Tanard Jackson, Buccaneers.
He's got a nose for the ball and he wasn't one of those players who struggled in Tampa Bay's late-season collapse.

Safety: Chris Harris, Panthers.
Harris got better in coverage, but that's still not a strength. Harris plays the run as well as any safety and is a strong tackler.