Last Word on Sports has started another new series! As we prepare for the preseason and for rosters to take shape, we look at the top performers on defense in the NFC South in 2022. This division is split right down the middle when discussing competitiveness. The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons are currently rebuilding their rosters for the future, looking for young talent to build around. On the other side of the coin, the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking to take advantage of their championship windows before they close. This exercise uses 4-3 personnel with a nickel cornerback to alternate.
2022 NFC South All-Division Team: The Defense
Defensive End: Brian Burns, Panthers
We start the 2022 NFC South all-division defense with one of the more crucial pieces to that young Carolina defense. Brian Burns has found his calling rushing the quarterbacks of this league. He logged 16 passing defeats (a metric that measures the chaos caused in the backfield/passing game) in 2021, tied for 11th with his former running-mate, Haason Reddick. With the exit of Reddick, the pro-bowler will have to step up as the main pass-rusher in this young Carolina defense. It shouldn’t be a problem. His explosive first step and bend around the edge should give offensive tackles nightmares for years to come.
Not blocking Brian Burns is a bold strategy. pic.twitter.com/MCwIVt467Z
— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) September 12, 2021
Defensive End: Cameron Jordan, Saints
The New Orleans defense has been one of the more consistently above-average units in the league. In the last five years, they have been one of only three defenses that put up above-average DVOA numbers yearly. Nobody is a symbol of that continuity better than long-time defensive end Cameron Jordan. Jordan’s ability to wreak havoc in the backfield and the passing game gave him the tie for third-most defeats last season with Maxx Crosby, trailing only Robert Quinn and T.J. Watt. The seven-time pro-bowler has given the all-important front four of Dennis Allen’s 4-3 defense an anchor on the outside in the run and passing game. His 12.5 sacks last season had him tied for seventh with Aaron Donald and Matthew Judon.
Defensive Tackle: Vita Vea, Buccaneers
Vita Vea, in most defenses, is a nose tackle, one of the best in the league. But, as Todd Bowles figured out last season, his skillset would cause as much havoc alongside another defensive tackle. When discussing Vea, it’s simple: nobody that big should be able to move as fluently as he does. At 6’4”, 376 pounds, the man is a natural run-stuffer in the middle of the Tampa Bay defense. After snagging his first pro-bowl last season, the Bucs added Akiem Hicks and Logan Hall to their defense to accompany Vea.
Defensive Tackle: Grady Jarrett, Falcons
If Vita Vea is the muscle, Grady Jarrett is the finesse of the defensive line for this 2022 NFC South all-division team. Jarrett signed a three-year extension with the Atlanta Falcons this off-season, cementing himself as the leader on that defensive line for the foreseeable future. And boy, do they need one. Outside of Jarrett, Atlanta had nobody that could resemble a pass-rushing threat to the quarterback. That manifested in an 18-sack campaign for the entirety of the Atlanta Falcons defense in 2021. Jarrett saw double- and triple-teams constantly throughout the year, which took away from his production on the stat sheet. With the front office investing in more defensive line talent, expect Jarrett’s numbers to look more like his pro-bowl production in 2019 and 2020.
You don’t appreciate Grady Jarrett enough until you study the tape!
— Full-Time Dame (@DP_NFL) June 19, 2022
Outside Linebacker: Lavonte David, Buccaneers
While Lavonte David played middle linebacker last season, he started his first seven years playing outside linebacker for plenty of 4-3 schemes. He was kicked inside because of his instincts and the evolution of the inside linebacker position. David has sustained elite coverage ability dating as far back as 2017. His coverage has been so good that fellow linebacker Devin White was the recipient of more targets than any other linebacker in 2021. David and the Bucs have had one of the best run defenses under Todd Bowles. Expect that mark to continue as long as David is running the defense.
Outside Linebacker: Pete Werner, Saints
When Werner got drafted in the second round last year, he was supposed to be a project that paid its dividends later. After Kwon Alexander went down, Werner found himself thrust into the spotlight much quicker than expected. For a rookie, he showed a propensity to be in the right spot at the right time to make a play. But with Alexander becoming a Jet this off-season, the ownness falls on Werner to make the plays for the Saints. His sideline-to-sideline speed makes him deadly in the run game. He also was a particularly sure tackler, amassing a 9% broken tackle rate, good for fifth among defenders with at least 25 tackles.
Middle Linebacker: Demario Davis, Saints
For the last three years, Demario Davis has earned a spot on the first- or second-team All-Pro list. It’s as if he has found a home in the middle of Dennis Allen’s attacking 4-3 defense. Davis has been the ultimate middle linebacker for New Orleans. He fills gaps in the run game. He can carry those routes up the seam and cover the middle in a Tampa-2 role. Davis can play man coverage on tight ends and running backs alike. Putting it simply, he can do it all.
Demario Davis doesn’t want the #Saints to be the best defense in the NFL. He wants them to be the one of the best defenses ever. @demario__davis also added a bit about Dome Patrol and some of the great linebackers that came before him. @BootKreweMedia pic.twitter.com/3dKu7MHpIF
— Jack Culotta, Jr. (@TalkCulotta) August 1, 2022
Cornerback: A.J. Terrell, Falcons
What is there to say about A.J. Terrell that hasn’t already? According to Football Outsiders, he allowed 3.3 yards per pass. Not only was that the best in the league last year, but it was also the best we’d seen since 2010 Darrelle Revis. Going from Quinn’s scheme to Pees’ may have been the best move for Terrell and his development. With the addition of Casey Heyward, there is a chance that Terrell could be even better than his breakout sophomore season.
A.J. Terrell allowed 200 passing yards last season when targeted
No other player had less than 285 (min. 50 targets) pic.twitter.com/YoSQAU9ygU
— PFF ATL Falcons (@PFF_Falcons) March 31, 2022
Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore, Saints
On the other side of the 2022 NFC South defense is Marshon Lattimore and his press-man coverage abilities. Marshon Lattimore had 187 reps of press coverage in 2021 and ended up with an 87.0 grade. And that’s with guarding some of the top talents like Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, twice. The four-time pro-bowler has been an issue since he debuted in 2016. He has forced 38 incompletions in man coverage since then, the most in the NFL.
Free Safety: Antoine Winfield, Jr., Buccaneers
Winfield, Jr. may have had one of the more iconic trash-talking stills with his “peace sign” to Tyreek Hill in Super Bowl LV. But after his impressive rookie year, he came back to show that he can do more than just talk the talk. Winfield’s ability to both range and play in the box helps Todd Bowles disguise his coverages pre-snap. It also led Winfield to 17 defeats, according to Football Outsiders, good enough to tie for 14th with Jalen Thompson of the Arizona Cardinals. And the best part is, he’s just getting started.
Antoine Winfield Jr: 5’9”
Michael Pittman Jr: 6’4”
— PFF (@PFF) November 28, 2021
Strong Safety: Jeremy Chinn, Panthers
Before you kick me out of the club for not picking Tyrann Mathieu, let’s look at a couple of things. Does Jeremy Chinn have the instincts of Mathieu? No, I don’t think many, if any, players in the NFL do. But what Chinn does have is the versatility and size to play as a linebacker and a box safety while having enough range to play over the top, if necessary. If you are looking for the prototype of an NFL safety, look no further than Chinn.
Nickel Cornerback: Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Saints
What better way to round out this 2022 NFC South All-Division Defense list than with yet another New Orleans Saint? That was sarcasm. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is far and away the best nickel/slot cornerback in the division. His ability to play press-man against anybody from a tight end to slot receiver allows the front seven more time to get to the quarterback. But another intriguing aspect of Gardner-Johnson’s game is his ability to co-exist with the safeties. With Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye coming in, Dennis Allen will line these three all over the field, causing headaches for offensive coordinators across the league.