Let’s take a closer look at another unit in the NFC South: linebackers. Ranking the linebackers specifically is difficult due to teams running different schemes between 3-4 and 4-3, rather than looking at front sevens as a whole, regardless this piece judges linebacker corps alone.
4. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons decided to stand by the group they had last year despite ranking in the bottom quarter of the league for yards allowed, both by pass and by rush, as well as points allowed. Deion Jones is the main man in the LB corps alongside De’Vondre Campbell and Foyesade Oluokun. The Falcons have lost the speed that they had when they powered through the NFC, only managing four forced fumbles in 2018, though they did end up with 15 interceptions. Atlanta allowed the second worst third down conversion rate, better than only Cincinnati, in 2018, considerably higher than their division rivals. Unless Dan Quinn can make a big impact as he takes over playcalling, that looks set to continue.
3. New Orleans Saints
Once again, despite the Saints being favourite for the conference, let alone the division, they don’t rank highly among this position group. The Saints are two-faced on defence, ranking 2nd against the rush but 29th against the pass. and ranked 18th in interceptions but 7th in forced fumbles. Demario Davies leads AJ Klein and Alex Anzelone in a solid unit but there is a distinct lack of big name talent as well as depth in New Orleans, and there has been for the better part of a decade. It’s not to say that the Saints linebackers are a huge liability that will prevent them competing in January – they were a pass interference call away from the Super Bowl with this group last season – and ultimately with the high power offence in NOLA, the Saints linebackers only need to hold an offence to 30 points a game and they should win. That said, this group need to maximise their potential to stop teams hanging around in games or if Drew Brees’ arm tires later in the season.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Perhaps it shows the weakness of linebackers in the division, perhaps it’s the inimitable ability of rookie Devin White. Regardless, despite losing Kwon Alexander in free agency, the Buccaneers sit in number two on this list. Lavonte David, Shaq Barrett, Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon make up a solid linebacker group, with Devin White adding plenty of agility and coverage skills as well as the occasional blitz. Last season, the Bucs were comparable to the Panthers against the run and bettered the Falcons yardage mark, but also bettered the Falcons and Saints against the pass and on third down percentage, despite allowing second most points. White partnering with Lavonte David leaves Tampa with a promising linebacker room.
1. Carolina Panthers
Once again the crown heads down to Charlotte. To be fair, it is hard for any team to compete at linebacker when Luke Kuechly is on the Panthers’ roster. Carolina are built around the eight year veteran but there are other stars in Shaq Thompson and with the arrival of rookie Christian Miller, the Panthers now have pass rushers on both levels of the front seven. Antwione Williams and Jermaine Carter add some depth but the superstars earn Carolina first place. The Panthers ranked 12th on pass and rush yards a year ago but Miller will help the Panthers thrive, allowing Kuechly and Thompson to play coverage effectively. Even though they top the division, their 39.% third down percentage was only good enough for 19th in the league. Hopefully the addition of pass rushing talent will rectify this.
Here’s how they stand so far…