Ranking the NFC South position groups rolls on, this time diving into the edge defender groups around the division. Two of the NFL’s most productive pass rushers reside in the South, with good depth at the position throughout the division despite Tampa Bay’s woes in that area.
Here’s the other rankings of the divisional position groups that have been completed so far:
Brian Burns Stephen Weatherly Yetur Gross-Matos Christian Miller Marquis Haynes
The Panthers are hoping that Burns and Gross-Matos are their edge-rushing duo of the future, but more questions than answers remain. I believe Burns has a bright future and his rookie campaign was solid with 7.5 sacks, including two against Tampa Bay, but can he incorporate power moves into his elite athletic skill set? Gross-Matos was highly inconsistent in college, and the Panthers will be charged with building a raw, but toolsy specimen from the ground up.
Weatherly has not shown much pass-rush prowess in four seasons as a Viking, and I doubt he finds it in Carolina. That could open the door for Miller to earn some reps as a long/late downs pass rusher after playing just 91 snaps last season. I liked the bendy Miller coming out of college, but staying healthy has been a major concern in his football career.
Of the Panthers top four edge defenders, two are entering their second year, one is a longtime veteran backup and the other is a rookie. Collectively, this group had 13.5 sacks last year. None have been full-time starters in the NFL before, which is a scary proposition in a division that is pretty solid at offensive tackle.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Dante Fowler Takk McKinley John Cominsky Charles Harris Steven Means
The Falcons have become the Island of Misfit Toys for high-pedigree pass rushers. After a slow start to his career, Fowler a former first-round pick, has become a good edge defender heading into year six, but has already been cast off by two teams. McKinley remains with Atlanta after being the team’s first round selection in 2017, but the team chose not to pick up his fifth-year option a few months ago. He’s never had more than seven sacks in a season, and had just 3.5 last year while playing over half of the team’s defensive snaps.
Cominsky will probably eventually be more of an early-down edge defender, late downs inside rusher, but he was solid enough in his 100 snaps last year to believe he’ll be a decent rotational depth player. Any team trading anything for first-round bust in Harris was a surprise, so when the Falcons coughed up a seventh-rounder for him, Miami didn’t hesitate. Harris has never even played 50 percent of his team’s defensive snaps, and has just 3.5 sacks in three seasons.
Fowler and McKinley are decent enough starters, but Atlanta doesn’t have any individual edge rusher that scares an opposing offense. Still, it’s a better group than the team has had in recent years, even if the long-term prognosis of the unit is still a huge question mark.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Shaquille Barrett Jason Pierre-Paul Anthony Nelson Kahzin Daniels Quinton Bell Cam Gill
The Bucs might have the strongest starting duo in the conference, but after that it falls off a cliff. Barrett emerged as the NFL’s leading sack master last season, after managing just a total of 14 through the first five years of his career. Some regression should be expected from his 19.5 sacks last year, but Barrett was a good player before the 2019 season and he’ll be a good player in 2020 as well. I just wouldn’t expect him to be in contention to lead the league in sacks again.
Pierre-Paul’s body has been through the ringer over the course of his career, but he’s still a good power rusher with a terrific variety of moves to win one-on-one. I think he would benefit greatly from not having to play 75-80 percent of the team’s snaps this season, as well as getting some pass rush reps on the inside, but the team’s bleak depth at edge defender indicates that may not be possible.
I watched all of Nelson’s 152 defensive snaps last season, and I saw a well-versed pass rusher who lacks the athleticism and power to win one-on-one at the NFL level. Because Nelson is already almost fully-developed, I don’t expect him to get much better, even with time. He may always be a decent-enough run defender, but the juice to make an impact on passing downs is severely lacking.
The rest of the Bucs depth is totally unproven and without much pedigree. The team would be wise to prioritize an edge pass rusher with any remaining offseason moves they might make. There are plenty of cheap veterans available that could help right away, but can the Bucs find the cap space to make it happen?
1. New Orleans Saints
Cam Jordan Marcus Davenport Trey Hendrickson Mario Edwards Anthony Chickillo
Jordan, a five-time Pro Bowler who had a career-high 15.5 sacks last year, including 2.5 against the Bucs, is the only Tier 1 edge defender in the league that plays in the NFC South. That automatically bumps the Saints up a notch. He’s an unbelievably good football player who hasn’t received the love he deserves in the national media over the course of his career.
New Orleans boasting the best edge defender in the conference and the deepest pass rush group is the reason they are No. 1. Trading up for Davenport in Round 1 may have been ill-advised, but when he’s been on the field for New Orleans, he’s flashed difference-making talent. Davenport, who had six sacks last year, including two against Tampa Bay, should be one of the big edge defender breakout candidates for 2020.
Hendrickson, who had 4.5 sacks last year, has been a versatile extra rusher who can play inside or outside, bringing the energy and the quickness to be disruptive against the run and pass. He’s an ideal No. 3 edge defender. Edwards is still trying to put his career back together, but he’s a good rotational player who also offers versatility in his alignments. Chickillo never made a dent as a pass rusher in Pittsburgh, but he’s a hard-nosed player who will ball on special teams if he makes the final roster.
There are not many weaknesses on the Saints roster, and their edge defender group is no exception. Having said that, Davenport, Hendrickson and Edwards have missed chunks of time already in their careers, so injuries are the one thing that could derail this quality unit.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft