By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position. Now it is time to check out the NFC South’s top players on defense.
DE: Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
Jordan has been a consistent pass rush machine for years, but the defensive end put together the strongest overall season of his career in 2016. Playing in all 16 games for the sixth consecutive season, Jordan collected 58 combined tackles, 7.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and six passes defended last season. His 92.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus was the third-highest among all edge defenders, and earned him No. 15 on the site’s list of the 101 best players from the 2016 NFL season. Jordan has averaged 71.3 pressures per season since 2013, trailing only J.J. Watt and Von Miller, and has shown no signs of slowing down. An obvious force in the pass rush, Jordan has also improved drastically against the run. He will once again lead a Saints defense that could surprise people in 2017.
DT: Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers
Short has been one of the best at his position for a few years now, and the Panthers finally rewarded him for his play with a massive five-year, $80 million contract extension this offseason. His run-defense grade of 85.4 ranked second among interior defenders last year, as well as his run-stop percentage of 11.9 percent. Short’s pass-rush productivity has also ranked in the top 10 in each of the past two seasons, in addition to his pass-rush grade of 81.2. It’s scary to think about what his numbers what have looked like had he played well all season. But Short did not pick up his game until Week 8, and from then on, racked up 37 total QB pressures and 24 defensive stops. PFF ranked Short as the NFL’s 49th-best player last season, and with him not missing a game in his four NFL seasons, he is one of the most valuable cogs of the Carolina defense.
DT: Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
McCoy did not have his best season in 2016, but still managed to put together a solid campaign. The veteran defensive tackle recorded 34 combined tackles, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and five passes defended in 15 games. McCoy has amassed 33 total sacks from the interior in the past four seasons alone, and despite being double-teamed constantly, also picked up 49 total QB pressures. He earned his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl, first selection as a second-team All-Pro, and played a key role in the Buccaneers’ defensive turnaround. McCoy is an absolute beast in the trenches, and at his best, is one of the league’s most talented defensive linemen. Now in their second season under defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the Bucs hope to have one of the league’s stronger defenses in 2017. Tampa’s defensive success starts with the play of McCoy.
DE: Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons
2016 served as a true breakout season for Beasley. In only his second year in the NFL, Beasley led the league in sacks with 15.5 and tied Bruce Irvin for the most forced fumbles with six. One reason for his high sack total last season was the 25-year-old’s ability to finish his quarterback pressures at a very high rate. Beasley had 56 total quarterback pressures in 2016 (17th-highest among all edge rushers) and was able to finish 28.6 percent of those with a sack (fourth-best rate of all edge rushers with at least five sacks). Beasley was rewarded for his great sophomore season with his first Pro Bowl selection, and was also named first-team All-Pro. Entering his third season, the young edge rusher looks to lead the league in sacks for the second straight year.
OLB: Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers
Thomas had a down year by his standards in 2016, yet still had solid overall season. After grading in the top 10 at his position each year from 2013-2015, Davis ranked as the 39th-best grade among 87 eligible linebackers. However, Davis was the most productive 4-3 outside linebacker at rushing the passer. His pass-rush productivity of 15.6 was the top mark at his position, as he produced 20 total pressures on 101 pass rush snaps. Davis also added one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and three interceptions to his season stats. After going largely unnoticed for the first few years of his career, Davis is finally being recognized around the league. He earned his second consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl in 2016, and given his age (he turned 34 in March), that is quite impressive.
ILB: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Kuechly missed six games last season due to injuries, but still posted the second-best grade among all linebackers from PFF with an overall grade of 92.9. In the 10 games he played in, the All-Pro linebacker recorded 102 combined tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, one interception, and six passes defended. Kuechly is the NFL’s best coverage linebacker, and is able to influence plays by recognizing opposing offense’s plays in a way that almost every other linebacker is unable to do. Even though he missed six games, Kuechly was still named to his fourth-straight Pro Bowl, as well as being named second-team All-Pro. Kuechly and Davis combine to form possibly the best linebacker duo in the NFL, and if the two can stay healthy, Carolina’s defense will be significantly improved in 2017.
OLB: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Bucaneers
Similar to McCoy, David struggled slightly in his first year of Smith’s defensive scheme. From 2012-2015, the linebacker averaged 132.5 tackles per season. But in 2016, that number dropped to just 83 combined tackles. However David was still able to put together a solid season, finishing the year with five sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, an interception (which he returned for a touchdown), and four passes defended. His tackling efficiency of 7.4 ranked 17th out of the league’s outside linebackers, but his overall PFF grade of 77.6 was 10 points lower than his average grade of 87.8 in his first three NFL seasons. David was named second-team All-Pro last season, and with more experience in Smith’s defensive system, he will look to build on his 2016 performance.
CB: Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons
Trufant suffered a torn pectoral during Week 9 and was forced to miss the remainder of the 2016 season. But the corner made his presence felt in the nine games he was on the field for. A major strength of Trufant’s game has been his tackling ability. Playing in all 16 games in 2015, the 6-foot corner ranked third among cornerbacks in PFF’s tackling efficiency. In his nine games in 2016, Trufant had zero missed tackles, playing the most snaps at cornerback (561) in the NFL without a missed tackle. Trufant was also targeted at the lowest rate of any NFL corner in 2015, leading the league in cover snaps per target with 9.8. After signing a five-year, $69 million contract extension in April (with $42 million guaranteed), Trufant is ready to return to elite corner status.
CB: Brent Grimes, Tampa Bay Bucaneers
Grimes had an incredibly underrated season last year. The veteran corner did not miss a game, picking up 57 combined tackles, one forced fumble, and four interceptions. Grimes’ 14 passes defended were also tied for the league-lead. Grimes did not receive much recognition for his play in 2016, despite the fact that he was PFF’s fourth-highest rated corner with a grade of 90.2. The analytics site also ranked the 34-year-old corner No. 43 on their list of top 101 players from the 2016 season, noting his Week 17 performance against the Panthers as one of the best games by any corner over the entire season (he received a grade of 99.9). Tampa’s defense looks to be a lot stronger in 2017, with Grimes continuing to anchor the team’s secondary.
FS: Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons
Neal looked downright impressive in his first NFL season. In 14 games, the rookie out of Florida had 106 combined tackles, a whopping five forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and eight passes defended. Neal ranked second at his position with 19 defensive stops in the passing game, and his 86.3 rating in pass coverage was beat by only Reshad Jones, Eric Weddle, Devin McCourty, and Eric Berry. If Neal can develop into a safety of that caliber, the Falcons would be absolutely thrilled. The 6-foot, 211-pound safety will have to improve as a run defender, as his grade of 48.1 in run-defense ranked 83rd among players at his position. If he can work on that part of his game, Neal will further establish himself as one of the game’s top up-and-coming safeties.
SS: Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints
Despite missing five games due to suspension and injury, Vaccaro managed to nearly match his statistical totals from previous seasons last year. The 26-year-old safety finished 2016 with 68 combined tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, two interceptions, and five passes defended. Vaccaro has led New Orleans’ defensive backs in run-stop percentage in three of his four seasons in the NFL (5.6 percent last season), while his run-defense grade of 80.6 was the 24th-highest among the league’s safeties. Vaccaro will need to make a big jump in his coverage game this season if he wants to make his first Pro Bowl, as the safety finished towards the bottom in each of PFF’s important coverage stats among players at his position in 2016.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.