2010 NFL Preseason: Predicting The All-NFC South Defense
If there was ever such a thing as the NFC South Hall of Fame, Derrick Brooks, who just may get into Canton on the first ballot when he's eligible in 2014, would be the first man in.
His stats speak for themselves. Even though his career began seven years before the NFC South was formed in 2002, he still was named an All-Pro three times and the Pro Bowl six times as a member of the division before being forced out of Tampa Bay after the 2008 season.
In total, Brooks was named a first team All-Pro five times and was an 11-time Pro Bowler.
I don't know if any NFC South defensive player ever had a better season than Brooks' 2002 campaign. He intercepted five passes, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, scored four touchdowns, and led the league's number one defense in tackles.
Brooks also scored a touchdown in Tampa Bay's 48-21 Super Bowl win over the Oakland Raiders.
Brooks is retired now and had joined ESPN's cast of thousands as an NFL analyst.
The following 11 players all aspire to make an impact on the NFC South this year as Brooks did during his seven seasons in the division.
DE Will Smith, New Orleans Saints
2009 Stats: 50 tackles, 13 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 interception
Smith is the best pass rusher in the NFC South now that Julius Peppers resides in the NFC North. He showed last season what he can do when he's healthy for a full season, and plays in a defense that emphasizes putting pressure on the quarterback.
I expect Smith to have another double-digit sack season this year. The Saints' defensive line is better this year with the addition of Alex Brown. Smith will benefit from the pressure his teammates will place upon opposing offenses.
DE John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons
2009 Stats: 35 tackles, 5.5 sacks, one forced fumble
Abraham's stats took a major dip in 2009 over the previous two seasons, but he was the lone threat to put pressure on the quarterback from the outside, and team's often rolled their protections towards him with few negative consequences.
Atlanta has improved their defense overall and Abraham should reap the benefits.
DT Sedrick Ellis, New Orleans Saints
2009 Stats: 34 tackles, two sacks
This is Sedrick Ellis' year to step up and make a huge impact. He's missed several games in two seasons due to knee injuries. The Saints' run defense is much better when he's in the lineup than when he's out, but his pass rush is inconsistent.
If healthy for a full season, Ellis has the ability to get 50-60 tackles and five or six sacks from the interior.
DT Jonathan Babineaux, Atlanta Falcons
2009 Stats: 47 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles
Babineaux led the team in sacks a year ago, but he must improve his play versus the run. The Falcons were just 25th against the run, and many of those yards came straight up the middle.
He has the potential to be the best interior lineman in the division and needs to fulfill that potential to bring the Falcons' defense to the next level.
Babineaux will be suspended for the first game of the season for his marijuana-related arrest in 2009.
MLB Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2009 Stats: 142 tackles, one forced fumble, one interception
This was a tough pick because there is a wealth of talent in this division at the middle linebacker position. Plus, every team in the NFC South features a 4-3 alignment so I decided on just one inside linebacker.
Ruud gets my vote because is a very productive player despite not having had much talent in front of him to shield him from blockers. The Bucs' interior defensive line was so bad last year that they spent their first two picks on tackles.
With an infusion of talent now playing in front of him, I expect Ruud to make his first Pro Bowl.
OLB Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers
2009 Stats: 142 tackles, three sacks, three interception, one forced fumble, seven passes defensed
Beason is my early pick for NFC South Defensive MVP. Though he's making the switch from the middle to the weak side, he'll still make the calls for the defense.
Beason is entering his fourth season and has made 140 tackles in each of his previous three. I expect Beason to make a quick transition from the middle to the outside.
OLB Mike Peterson, Atlanta Falcons
2009 Stats: 106 tackles, one sack, one interception, two forced fumbles, seven passes defensed
Mike Peterson made his 1,100th tackle last year, his 11th in the NFL. He's bounced from Indianapolis to Jacksonville and is now in his second year in Atlanta.
Peterson has the versatility to play inside or outside and has prepared for virtually every offensive scheme in his career.
Even though the Falcons drafted Sean Weatherspoon to be his eventual replacement, Peterson is not ready to relinquish his position just yet.
CB Chris Gamble, Carolina Panthers
2009 Stats: Four interceptions, 12 passes defensed, 58 tackles
Gamble, the former first round pick out of Ohio State, is easily the Panthers' best defensive back. He has intercepted some of the league's best quarterbacks, including both Drew Brees and Tom Brady on the road in 2009.
Gamble is going to have to be on top of his game this year because Carolina has lost its best pass rusher and a starting linebacker since the end of last season
CB Tracy Porter, New Orleans Saints
2009 Stats: Four interception, 12 passes defensed, 57 tackles, one touchdown
It was a toss-up between Porter, teammate Jabari Greer, and Dunta Robinson. However, Porter's heroics in the postseason gives him the nod.
Porter begins his third pro season, and should only get better this year and in the next few years. He has all the ability to be an elite corner in this league, but needs to stay healthy.
He broke his wrist on the Superdome turf while diving for an interception against the Vikings in 2008, and fell over a teammate while pursuing a tackle in 2009 and injured his leg.
SS Roman Harper, New Orleans Saints
2009 Stats: 99 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles
Harper is the classic "in the box" safety. He plays closer to the line of scrimmage than a traditional safety, is often used as a blitzer, and is strong against the run.
He had been one of the Saints' top tacklers for each of the past three seasons.
Harper is in a contract year and I expect him to have a huge season. He was one of just a few players from the NFC South to make the Pro Bowl on defense a year ago.
Harper's biggest weakness is in coverage. He doesn't do well when singled up on a receiver or tight end.
FS Malcolm Jenkins, New Orleans Saints
2009 Stats: 55 tackles, one interception, four passes defensed, and two forced fumbles
Jenkins was the Saints' first round pick last year. He had his struggles in coverage at corner, but proved to be a tremendous tackler. His skill set fits more at safety, and that's where the Saints have decided to use him this year.
Darren Sharper was the starter at free safety last year and had an All-Pro season, but he may begin the year on the PUP list. If he does, that means he will be inactive for at least the first six games of the season. Sharper is 34 and had a form of microfracture surgery in the offseason.
Players often make a huge improvement from year one to to year two and Jenkins has a chance to make a gigantic leap.
I expect him to be the full-time starter at free safety, and grow by leaps and bounds in his second season in the NFL and in Gregg Williams' defense.
Punter Jason Baker, Carolina Panthers
2009 Stats: 76 punts, 44.1 gross average, 37.1 net average
I think that Baker will get a lot of opportunities to punt the ball, and punt it deep. I don't see this offense scoring tons of points, nor do I see the defense forcing a lot of turnovers to give the offense a short field.
Baker is already a very good punter and will have lots of practice to get even better.
Defensive End: Everette Brown, Panthers
Defensive Tackle: Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers
Middle Linebacker: Jonathan Vilma, Saints
Outside Linebacker: Steven Nicolas, Falcons
Cornerback: (tie) Jabari Greer, Saints, Dunta Robinson, Falcons
Strong Safety: Charles Godfrey, Panthers
Free Safety: Thomas DeCoud, Falcons
Punter: Thomas Morestead, Saints