NFC South: Position rankings
- Our NFC South position rankings will finish up with the fullbacks Tuesday and running backs Wednesday.
- Also on Wednesday, John Clayton and I will square off in the finale of our Great Debate series. The topic has something to do with the chances of the Saints repeating as champions.
- NFC South blog intern Kevin Little is busy tabulating the final votes in our project on most disliked and beloved figures in the history of each NFC South franchise. As soon as the results come in, I’ll start posting them. I’d look for that to be spread out over Tuesday and Wednesday.
- On Thursday night, I’ll be in the Superdome covering the season opener between the Saints and Vikings.
- We won’t be able to hold our NFC South chat in its regular time slot at 1 p.m. Friday because I’ll be traveling from New Orleans to Pittsburgh. I’m still trying to get clearance from chat-traffic control in Bristol to see if, perhaps, we can do a pregame chat at some point Thursday. I’ll let you know immediately if that’s going to happen.
- I’ll be in Pittsburgh on Sunday to cover the Falcons against the Steelers. Tampa Bay and Carolina fans, I’ll see your teams when they meet in Week 2 in Charlotte.
Pat Yasinskas: Hang loose just a little bit. The running backs will be the final installment of our NFC South position series. The list of them will run Wednesday and the fullbacks will run Tuesday. I’ve already got them written, but wanted to wait until everyone gets back from the holiday weekend to unveil them.
Luke in Virginia writes: I saw that New Orleans cut Al Woods, who was a 4th round pick they traded up to get. Is that the end of him with New Orleans or could he land with the practice squad and come back in a year or so? It seems odd that they'd cut a pick like that everyone acknowledged was raw but talented. I trust the organization but do you have any insights that could help me understand their thought process?
Pat Yasinskas: Coach Sean Payton said Sunday that he believes Woods has signed with another team’s practice squad. I haven’t seen an official announcement on that from any team yet, but I think it’s safe to say Woods won’t be back with the Saints. Yes, it is somewhat strange the Saints were so willing to part with a mid-round draft pick, especially at a position where they are not loaded with depth. I’ve heard nothing specific as to what the Saints didn’t like about Woods, but it’s obvious that, after seeing him in training camp, they saw some major flaw that convinced them Woods had no future in New Orleans.
JM in Charlotte writes: Do you think that the Panthers would take a flier on Pat White? Maybe he'd convert to WR?
Pat Yasinskas: Why take a flier on White? The guy never did much of anything as a quarterback in Miami, where the Wildcat offense was designed for someone like him. The Panthers aren’t going to bring someone in and suddenly start running the Wildcat on a regular basis when they’ve got a great running game with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart? Converting a quarterback to wide receiver takes time and the Panthers already are doing that with one guy -- Armanti Edwards.
Brandon in Tallahassee, Fla., writes: Can the Bucs please break away from the youth movement for one player and sign Tony Richardson? He blocked for the #1 rushing attack last year and was a great locker room guy. He would also allow Earnest Graham to fully move back to RB, solidifying weak depth at that position.
Pat Yasinskas: Makes some sense, but I doubt it. The Bucs seem totally set on going with youth. They might add a fullback at some point, but it will probably be a younger one.
It was very easy to rank the starters in this group, but the backups were much more of a challenge. In other words, this position is very top heavy across the division. That’s what happens when you’ve got one of the game’s best and two more guys with enormous potential.
- Drew Brees, Saints. There’s no need to even try to explain. I’ll just say Brees belongs in any conversation about the best quarterbacks in the league, and might even top that list.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Gerald HerbertDrew Brees was an easy choice as the best quarterback in the NFC South.
- Matt Ryan, Falcons. With Michael Turner and Harry Douglas in good health, the Falcons finally should be able to do what they want on offense. Part of that plan includes opening things up a bit for Ryan, which should allow him to truly become a star.
- Josh Freeman, Buccaneers. Yes, he’s very much a work in progress. But the upside is tremendous. He can make plays with his arms and his legs, and the Bucs have been doing their best to surround him with weapons.
- Matt Moore, Panthers. His play at the end of last season earned him a shot at the starting job. Moore’s got some intangibles and talent around him. He might turn out to be fine in a system that doesn’t require a superstar at quarterback.
- Jimmy Clausen, Panthers. Carolina didn’t use a second-round pick on a guy they didn’t think could end up as the starter pretty quickly. Moore’s going to get his chance. But, if he stumbles at all, the Panthers won’t hesitate to turn things over to a rookie who spent his college career in a pro-style offense.
- Patrick Ramsey, Saints. We don’t know yet if the Saints have settled on Ramsey as the No. 2 guy. But he’s good enough for No. 6 on this list. Ramsey’s a guy who didn’t get great coaching early in his career and has bounced around. But there still is talent here, and playing for Sean Payton is any quarterback’s dream.
- Chase Daniel, Saints. Again, we’re waiting for Payton to make an announcement on who is No. 2, but Daniel certainly presented a strong case in the preseason. He’s short and doesn’t have the world’s biggest arm, but neither does Brees. A lot of people see Daniel as a young version of Brees.
- Chris Redman, Falcons. If I had to choose one NFC South backup to get his team through one game, it would probably be Redman. He’s a veteran and can play well in small doses. But the Falcons would be in trouble if Redman had to play for an extended period.
- Josh Johnson, Buccaneers. His preseason performance was good at times. There’s a lot of athleticism here. But I just don’t think Johnson’s a guy you want to see starting a game.
The quarterbacks are going to be next on our list of NFC South position rankings. Usually, quarterbacks go last, but I’m going to switch things up and save the running backs for last. That’s simply because the running backs are more interesting. We already know Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the NFC South.
I’ve been posting the position rankings early each morning, but the quarterback rankings will come a little bit later Friday because I want to review all four team’s preseason finales. I know what order I’m using on the four starting quarterbacks, but want to take one last look at the backups before completing my final list.
I haven’t quite figured out where I’m going to watch Thursday night’s preseason games. I know I can get the Buccaneers game locally, because they’re playing on the road. But I think I’ll head out to a place with a lot of televisions and hope I can catch at least parts of all four games.
Also on Friday, I’m going to do a column on a guy I’m predicting will be this year’s breakout player in the NFC South. That’s scheduled to appear Friday afternoon, so you’ll have to wait to see who I’ve chosen.
The NFC South chat will be held Friday at 1 p.m. ET. Going back to the position rankings, since it’s a holiday weekend, I’ll save the rankings on the running backs until Tuesday.
In terms of overall strength, I’d say this position is one of the better ones in the division. But there’s a huge disparity between the Saints, who have a bunch of good receivers to the Panthers, who have only one proven commodity, to the Buccaneers, who have lots of potential but no sure things. On to the rankings.
- Steve Smith, Panthers. There were three guys in the race and the other two had better numbers than Smith last year. But I’m playing a hunch that Smith will have a monster season, even though the Panthers have some uncertainty at quarterback. I’m basing this on my theory that Smith, always a high-energy guy, will be more motivated than ever after simmering on the sidelines throughout training camp while recovering from a broken arm.[+] EnlargeKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSteve Smith led the Panthers with 982 receiving yards last season.
- Roddy White, Falcons. I came very close to going with White at No. 1 and White’s numbers from the last three seasons would have validated that choice. I think White can have an even bigger impact this year because running back Michael Turner and slot receiver Harry Douglas are healthy and they should take some coverage away from White.
- Marques Colston, Saints. Colston also got consideration for No. 1. He’s often a man among boys and his size makes him a mismatch for just about any cornerback. His 70 catches last season don’t quite compare with the numbers White and Smith usually put up, but that’s mainly because New Orleans has so many other options in the passing game. Still, Colston is the best of all those options.
- Robert Meachem, Saints. After a rough start to his career, Meachem emerged last season and caught nine touchdown passes. I expect him to only get better. He’s earned the trust of Drew Brees and the coaching staff and that means more passes will be coming his way.
- Devery Henderson, Saints. Yep, I’m going with three New Orleans receivers in the top five. That’s a credit to Brees and Sean Payton for spreading the ball around so well. Henderson is a guy who has grown into a very solid receiver, after overcoming major problems with drops early in his career.
- Mike Williams, Buccaneers. I’m really hesitant to rank a rookie receiver this high because I’ve seen too many of them through the years struggle after looking great in the summer. But I think Williams might be the exception to this rule. In camp and the preseason, he’s just gone out and made plays day after day. Tampa Bay needs someone to emerge as a No. 1 receiver and he seems to be leading the candidates.
- Michael Jenkins, Falcons. A lot of people like to criticize Jenkins because he doesn’t put up flashy numbers. But that’s not really his role in the Atlanta offense. White and tight end Tony Gonzalez are going to get the bulk of the passes thrown their way. Jenkins’ job is to be a safety valve and a strong blocker in the running game. That might not sound like a big deal for a wide receiver, but in Atlanta’s system it is. Jenkins is the best blocking receiver in the division.[+] EnlargeKim Klement-US PresswireRookie Mike Williams is turning heads with his play.
- Harry Douglas, Falcons. Some Atlanta fans are rooting for Douglas to take Jenkins’ spot in the starting lineup, but that’s not really in the plans. The Falcons want to use Douglas in the slot. He’s a guy who can stretch the field and pull some coverage away from White and Gonzalez. He also gives Matt Ryan another downfield threat besides White.
- Reggie Brown, Buccaneers. Someone’s going to end up being the starter opposite Williams and the Bucs think Brown has a shot at securing that role. This is a guy the Bucs traded for with five years left on his contract. He’s still adjusting to the system a bit, but the Bucs think he’s going to fit in.
- Brandon LaFell, Panthers. The rookie could end up starting because the Panthers really don’t have much beyond Smith. LaFell’s progressing pretty well and the Panthers see him as a younger version of Muhsin Muhammad. That’s a nice comparison, but LaFell’s still got a lot of work to do to get to that level.
- Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers. The plan is to use him in the slot, where Stroughter is a perfect fit. He showed big-play ability last year and the Bucs are fantasizing about Stroughter running under some deep passes from Josh Freeman.
- Lance Moore, Saints. He was sort of overshadowed and forgotten last year, but that may have been mainly due to injuries. In 2008, Moore was New Orleans’ most consistent receiver. With Colston, Meachem and Henderson around, Moore might not get a great deal of playing time. But he’s a nice luxury to have around in case there are injuries. How many No. 4 receivers around the league are better than this guy?
- Dwayne Jarrett, Panthers. Carolina’s been waiting for the light to go on since Jarrett was drafted. It hasn’t happened yet and maybe it never will. If LaFell ends up starting, Jarrett may just fade away.
- Arrelious Benn, Buccaneers. He was a second-round pick, but Williams has been better in the preseason. The Bucs aren’t down on Benn. They think he’s progressing at the normal pace for a rookie and he could play more of a role as the season goes on.
Let’s start with a quick overview on a position that’s got to be considered one of the division’s overall strengths. The NFC South has arguably the best tight end ever, two guys who can be very good when they’re healthy and happy and a bunch of guys that are solid role players. Let’s jump into the rankings.
- Tony Gonzalez, Falcons. Yes, he’s on the downside of his career and he’s even dropped some hints that this might be his last year. But none of that really shows up on the field. Gonzalez takes such good care of himself that age doesn’t really detract from his performance. He’s Matt Ryan’s favorite target and having slot receiver Harry Douglas back in the offense this year should help open more of the field for Gonzalez.
- Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers. Yes, you have to be concerned because the Bucs have been so cautious with Winslow’s knee throughout the camp and preseason. But there were a lot of days last season when he didn’t practice. The knee probably will remain an issue and Winslow might get days off from practice, but the important thing is that he’s on the field on Sundays. He made it through all 16 games last season and produced 77 catches in a season where the Bucs were juggling quarterbacks. With Josh Freeman now firmly in the starting role, Winslow could be even more of a force.
- Jeremy Shockey, Saints. Knock him all you want because he brings some of that on with his flamboyant style. But this guy still makes some pretty big plays. He’s not going to be an 80-catch guy because New Orleans has so many other targets in the passing game, but he’s an important part of that mix. Durability is a bit of a concern, but Shockey’s always a threat when he’s on the field.
- David Thomas, Saints. No, he’s not a starter, but he played a huge role in the New Orleans offense last year, even lining up at fullback at times. With starting fullback Heath Evans healthy and back in the lineup, Thomas should be able to focus more on just playing tight end. With Shockey’s durability issues and Sean Payton’s creative offense, Thomas will be on the field a lot. He’s a guy who could start for some other teams.
- Dante Rosario, Panthers. Carolina uses a rotation of three tight ends and none of them are going to put up huge numbers in an offense that doesn’t throw to the tight end often. But Rosario is the one who is the biggest threat as a receiver.
- Jeff King, Panthers. King’s kind of a jack-of-all trades in this offense. He’s got good hands and could put up bigger numbers in a different offensive system, but he nicely fits a role here.
- Justin Pelle, Falcons. A solid veteran, who gets to do some of the dirty work the Falcons try to spare Gonzalez from.
- Jimmy Graham, Saints. This rookie is a project with only one year of college football experience under his belt. But the former basketball player is a phenomenal athlete. Payton will include Graham in some packages to try to take advantage of his athletic ability.
- Gary Barnidge, Panthers. He’s the third man in the rotation with King and Rosario. He only caught 12 passes last year, but averaged better than 20 yards per catch. That statistic could convince the Panthers to throw to him a bit more often.
- Jahri Evans, guard, Saints. Yes, left tackle is the most important position on the offensive line and that will be reflected in some of our later rankings. But there are a lot of scouts and coaches out there that will tell you Evans is the best guard in the NFL right now and maybe even the best overall lineman. New Orleans’ offensive line is very good and it all starts with Evans.
- Jordan Gross, left tackle, Panthers. He’s as solid as they come. Strong as a run and pass-blocker and the anchor of another very good offensive line. Can’t wait to see him go against former teammate Julius Peppers when the Panthers play the Bears in October.
- Carl Nicks, guard, Saints. Again, New Orleans’ offensive line is a little bit different than the norm because it’s built from within. Let me know if you can find a better guard tandem than Evans and Nicks.
- Jeff Otah, right tackle, Panthers. I’m taking Otah over some pretty good left tackles and I don’t feel guilty about that. If this guy is healthy, he’s a steam-roller for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to run behind.
- Davin Joseph, guard, Buccaneers. One of the more unsung players in the NFC South. If New Orleans wasn’t in the division, Joseph would be the NFC South’s best guard.
- Travelle Wharton, guard, Panthers. Much like Joseph, Wharton doesn’t get a lot of attention. But playing between Gross and the next guy on our list, he makes it easy for Williams and Stewart to run to either side.
- Ryan Kalil, center, Panthers. He’s got a Pro Bowl on his résumé now and is still getting better.
- Donald Penn, left tackle, Buccaneers. Is he an elite left tackle? No, but the Buccaneers just handed him a ton of money because he’s capable of protecting Josh Freeman’s blind side.
- Jonathan Goodwin, center, New Orleans. It may sound easy to play between Evans and Nicks and snap the ball to Drew Brees, but Goodwin is better than a lot of people realize.
- Sam Baker, left tackle, Falcons. Still kind of a mystery as he enters his third year. Baker’s dealt with injuries and hasn’t really established himself as a force. Still, you don’t see Matt Ryan getting beat up very often.
- Jon Stinchcomb, right tackle, Saints. Yep, I know he went to the Pro Bowl last season and I’m not trying to sell him short. Stinchcomb is very solid, but he’s a right tackle and that’s not as important as left tackle.
- Jeff Faine, center, Buccaneers. A veteran with good leadership skills. The Bucs need Faine to stay on the field all season. When he was hurt last year, it had a huge impact on the entire offense.
- Harvey Dahl, guard, Falcons. I feel like I’m selling Atlanta’s offensive linemen a little short. But the reason for that is they’re very good as a group without having much in the way of big names. Dahl may not be the most gifted guy around, but he’s feisty and tough.
- Jermon Bushrod, left tackle, Saints. This guy is proof that you don’t need an elite left tackle to win a Super Bowl. Bushrod did a nice job last year, but the Saints gave him plenty of help. They also drafted Charles Brown because they think he might be able to take over for Bushrod at some point.
- Todd McClure, center, Falcons. There were several other legitimate candidates for this final spot, but I went with McClure. That’s mainly out of respect. He’s near the end of his career and he’s not what he once was. Still, he’s a very important figure in holding Atlanta’s offensive line together.
We looked at the defensive ends on Monday and saw that the list was topped by Will Smith and an aging John Abraham, and filled out with a bunch of prospects and role players. We’re looking at defensive tackles today and the pickings might be even more slender.
- Jonathan Babineaux, Falcons. This one was easy. Babineaux is by no means an All-Pro, but he’s proven over time he’s a very solid defensive tackle, which might make him the only one in the division. Babineaux should be helped by having Peria Jerry and Corey Peters joining the rotation this year. Last season, Babineaux led the Falcons with 6 sacks.[+] EnlargeDale Zanine/US PresswireJonathan Babineaux had 47 tackles, including six sacks for the Falcons last season.
- Sedrick Ellis, Saints. No, he hasn’t dominated like a lot of people thought he would coming into the league two years ago. But the main reasons for that have been injuries. When he’s healthy, Ellis isn’t far from the same level as Babineaux, and, eventually, could turn out to be better.
- Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers. Yep, I’m going with a rookie this high. Part of it is because there’s not a lot to choose from. But part of it is because I think McCoy’s going to be really good right from the start. Don’t be surprised if he’s at the top of this list a year from now. I’ve had two general managers from other teams with early picks that they had McCoy ranked ahead of Ndamukong Suh, who went one pick ahead of McCoy to Detroit.
- Anthony Hargrove, Saints. Like a lot of NFL teams, the Saints rotate their defensive tackles a lot and Hargrove technically might not be a starter. But Hargrove’s going to play a lot. He straightened his life around as he joined the Saints last year and it looks like the arrow continues to point up on this guy.
- Peria Jerry, Falcons. We’ll see if this one ends up being a reach or not. There are big questions about Jerry’s health as he comes back from a major knee injury that sidelined him for most of his rookie year. But the guy was a first-round pick. The Falcons are going to rotate their tackles heavily and may be a little cautious with Jerry at first, but they’re hoping he can emerge as a force as the season goes on.
- Roy Miller, Buccaneers. McCoy and second-round pick Brian Price are getting all the attention, but Miller’s another young defensive tackle the Bucs are expecting big things from. He’ll probably start next to McCoy. Miller’s not the kind of guy who will put up big stats, but he’s a “plugger’’ and should be a big boast for the run defense.
- Brian Price, Buccaneers. He’s more explosive than Miller and although McCoy’s been drawing all the comparisons to Warren Sapp, Price is the guy that actually is built like Sapp, and, theoretically, should be able to play like Sapp did. But a preseason injury set back Price just enough to probably keep him out of the starting lineup. That doesn’t really matter. He’ll rotate in a lot.
- Corey Peters, Falcons. If Jerry’s not healthy, the Falcons are going to have to rely on Peters a lot. Either way, Peters will have a prominent role in the rotation. He showed more polish in camp than the Falcons expected from a third-round choice.
- Louis Leonard, Panthers. His health remains a question. But, if Leonard is on the field, he’s the best defensive tackle the Panthers have.
- Remi Ayodele, Saints. Yeah, I know this guy started 13 games for the Super Bowl champions last year and he could start again. But Ayodele is more role player than anything else. He’s all right against the run, but doesn’t bring anything special to the table.
- Ed Johnson, Panthers. If he keeps dropping weight like he has throughout the preseason, Johnson probably will end up starting or getting significant playing time. The Panthers took a chance on this guy because he played under defensive coordinator Ron Meeks with the Colts before running into some trouble. But Johnson appears to be getting his career back on track.
- Trey Lewis, Falcons. Again, much will depend on Jerry’s health. But with Babineaux suspended for the first game, Lewis might have some role in a rotation.
I’ll start it a bit later this afternoon and I’ve decided to begin with defense because I want some more time to decide if I should rank Josh Freeman and Matt Moore ahead of Drew Brees. No, seriously, I just randomly decided to begin with defense and I’m going to start with cornerbacks.
We’ll roll out a position or two a day and you’re certainly welcome to agree or disagree with my rankings. That’s what the comments section and the mailbag are for.
Just so you know where I’m coming from, these rankings aren’t going to be based entirely on a player's entire career. They’re going to be based on where the player is at in his career right now and what I project from him this coming season. I won't rank every player currently on a roster, but I will go into backups at some positions.
I don’t pretend to be a scout and I don’t sit around and break down film. My opinions are my opinions, but they’re based largely on talking to front-office people, scouts, coaches and players. I use my own eyes too and try to weigh in factors like people from teams talking up their own guys.
Anyway, I just wanted to give you a heads-up that this feature is starting. I’ve got the cornerbacks post written and will give our editors a little chance to jazz it up with a photo or two. Look for it later this afternoon.
Just took a glance at the mailbag for the first time in a couple of days and there was an overriding theme.
I'll let Dave from Los Angeles sum up the thoughts of many Tampa Bay fans and even a couple of people who work inside One Buccaneer Place, who gently broached this topic when I was out there Thursday.
Dave wrote: Pat, I've never written to you before, but after reading your ranking of the top DB's in the south, I had to. Were you just really tired, or possibly drunk? How do you leave off Tanard Jackson? Not only should he be on there, he should be top 5 at worst. Please tell me you were in the middle of a bender when you wrote this.
For those who haven't been following, I've been ranking the NFC South players by position and Dave is specifically referring to Wednesday's item where I ranked the top 10 defensive backs. To answer Dave's question about my state of mind when assembling the list, none of the above. Leaving Tampa Bay's Tanard Jackson off that list was a calculated move.
I had Jackson on the list at one point. But, in the final analysis, I didn't think he belonged and that's why he didn't appear on the list. Yeah, Jackson had a pretty nice rookie year in 2007. But I saw him a lot in 2008 and didn't think he had a very good year -- of course, some of that was because the defense around him was collapsing. If you want to talk stats, Jackson had one interception last year. I'm sure it was a nice interception, although I can't recall it, but it was one interception.
I think Jackson has the skills to bounce back and perhaps even become the best safety in the division. But, right now, he's not.
I'm getting ready to head out to One Buccaneer Place to work on a story that will be part of our preview for training camp. But I also will check in with a note or two about the latest from the Bucs' workouts.
In just a couple of hours, a post is going to pop up titled "Ultimate Building Blocks." Each of our division bloggers were asked to draft 10 players from their division with the goal being to start a team capable of winning the Super Bowl the next three years. I can't give away my list yet, but I know there will be a few surprises. Check it out around 11 a.m. ET.
We've completed our position rankings for offense and defense for the NFC South. I'll get to the special teams, coaches and front offices next week. On coaching, I'll break it into two categories: One will be purely on head coaches and the other will be on the complete staff of assistants.
The defensive backs are next in our series of NFC South position rankings.
I'm lumping the cornerbacks and safeties together and basing my choices on the theory that cornerbacks are more important than safeties.
- Chris Gamble, CB, Carolina. Perhaps the only true shutdown corner in the division.
- Aqib Talib, CB, Tampa Bay. Talib has the potential to join Gamble as a shutdown corner, if he can build on a promising rookie year.
- Jabari Greer, CB, New Orleans. It feels weird to rank a New Orleans defensive back this high, but there's a reason why the Saints paid Greer a bunch of money.
- Ronde Barber, CB, Tampa Bay. Yeah, I know there are some people who think he's washed up. But the Bucs kept him for a reason and all those Pro Bowl trips are tough to overlook.
- Erik Coleman, S, Atlanta. Might be the most underrated player in the division.
- Chris Houston, CB, Atlanta. Some people still question Houston, but he was Atlanta's best cover guy a year ago.
- Tracy Porter, CB, New Orleans. Had a great start to rookie year before suffering season-ending injury.
- Roman Harper, S, New Orleans. Some Saints' fans will disagree, but Harper's better than a lot of people realize. He's a strong safety, who got hung out in coverage too much in the past. With better cornerbacks, he'll be a factor.
- Chris Harris, S, Carolina. Not a great cover guy, but he can hit and is one of Carolina's vocal leaders.
- Malcolm Jenkins, CB, New Orleans. I'm taking the rookie over veteran safety Darren Sharper because I think Jenkins' impact will last much longer. He may end up replacing Sharper at free safety in the future.
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.
- Mike Peterson, Atlanta. Getting up there in age, but has something to prove after last year's clash with Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville.
- 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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Sporting News Today ranked all 32 head coaches and New Orleans' Sean Payton tops the NFC South guys.
Payton's ranked No. 6. Atlanta's Mike Smith is No. 8, Carolina's John Fox is No. 9 and Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris is No. 31.
I'm going to rank the NFC South coaches individually and as staffs next week, as part of our series on NFC South position rankings. I haven't done the rankings yet, but I'll respectfully disagree with the way the NFC South guys are ranked in this poll.
I can tell you right now Smith and Fox will occupy the top two spots, although I'm not sure what order they'll be in. Payton's a lock for third and Morris for fourth. Morris is last because he's untested -- for now.
One other thing I found interesting in the Sporting News Today rankings was the comment on Fox:
"He is a players' coach and a great motivator. The players love playing for him.''
Umm, I don't think Julius Peppers wrote that. Fox definitely built a reputation as a players' coach in his first year or two. Sometimes, people change and I don't know that players view Fox, who I think remains an excellent Xs and Os coach, the way they once did.
We're resuming our NFC South position rankings with defensive linemen.
I'm combining defensive ends and tackles into one big group, and as I'm looking at the rosters, I'm mildly surprised that this group isn't stronger. That's especially true at defensive tackle, but there's hope here because I think young players like Atlanta's Peria Jerry and New Orleans' Sedrick Ellis can be very good, very soon.
The overall quality of defensive linemen in the division is a little down right now because Carolina and Tampa Bay don't have the outstanding lines they once did. The ends are a little stronger than the tackles and can become even more so if some young players like Atlanta's Jamaal Anderson, Carolina's Everette Brown and Tampa Bay's Gaines Adams emerge this year.
Anyway, here's the list:
- John Abraham, DE, Atlanta. Sure, go ahead and call him one-dimensional. But aren't dominant pass-rush skills the dimension you want most from a defensive end?
- Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina. Easily the division's most-talented defensive lineman. But there are questions about his motivation and intensity with Peppers wanting out of Carolina. Those questions aren't really new.
- Jonathan Babineaux, DT, Atlanta. Very quietly, he's become the most solid interior lineman in the division.
- Will Smith, DE, New Orleans. No, he didn't play to his potential last year and he's facing a four-game suspension at the start of this season. But this guy plays the run well and has shown pass-rush skills in the past.
- Sedrick Ellis, DT, New Orleans. Has the ability to unseat Babineaux as division's top tackle and could do that very soon.
- Gaines Adams, DE, Tampa Bay. You can argue that this ranking is way too high. But look at the rest of the division. Adams had 6.5 sacks last season. If he adds a couple of moves, he easily can reach double-digit sacks.
- Peria Jerry, DT, Atlanta. He's only a rookie, but there's little bust factor with this guy. He should be a force right away.
- Charles Johnson, DE, Carolina. We're going to rank him ahead of the rookie Brown based on the promise Johnson showed last year. He had six sacks in a part-time role and has the potential to do big things.
- Ma'ake Kemoeatu, DT, Carolina. He doesn't do anything except take up space. But that's his job.
- Charles Grant, DE, New Orleans. Exact same story as his teammate Smith. But the guy does have a couple of double-digit sack years in his background and you never know what new coordinator Gregg Williams might be able to pull out of him.