Defensive Line/Rush Linebackers: Image: http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2013/1220/nfl_u_johnsonhardy_jh_600.jpg
2. New Orleans
3. Tampa Bay
This is a strength of the division as a whole, but Carolina comes out on top. Their disruptive front 4 was a big reason for their success last year, and allowed their talented linebacking corps to flow freely, and covered up many of the deficiencies in their secondary. The only wild card is whether Greg Hardy will face suspension for his off-season legal troubles. Carolina drafted Kony Ealy in the 2nd round, which will provide another option if Hardy misses some time.
The Saints pass rush went from being one of the most anemic in the entire league into one of the best, young groups of pass rushers in the NFL. Not only is the line disruptive, but it's deep. Jordan, Galette and Hicks are the emerging stars, while Walker and Foster are budding, valuable role players. Bunkley and Jenkins provide the Saints anchors in the middle. 2013 draft pick Rufus Johnson has been taking snaps at d-line in OTA's (kind of in Galette's role), and he could provide the Saints another situational pass rusher.
Lovie Smith became the head coach of Tampa this off-season, and he could make their talented d-line finally realize their potential. Tampa added disruptive DE Michael Johnson in the off-season, but the player to watch is DT Gerald McCoy. McCoy has emerged as one of the top 3 Techs in the league, and the 3 Tech is one of the most important positions in Lovie's Tampa 2 defense.
Atlanta improved their d-line in the off-season, but still trail behind the rest of the division. Jackson and Soliai give them some stoutness up front, something they've sorely been missing. Hageman was drafted in the 2nd round, and gives Atlanta a physically disruptive specimen. If they can develop his technique (he's very raw), he could give QB's in the division fits. Linebackers: Image: http://media2.newsobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/22/19/35/13QflG.AuSt.156.jpeg
2. Tampa Bay
3. New Orleans
Carolina moved Kuechly from outside to inside, and he turned into a super star. With the division on the line, Kuechly turned in one of the best performances by a linebacker last year, registering 24 tackles and an INT. Thomas Davis logged 14 tackles and an INT in that same game.
Tampa Bay has their own dynamic duo who could move into the top spot with Mason Foster and Lavonte David. Both look to thrive in Lovie's system, David in particular, who is an active and disruptive, logging 145 tackles last year, along with 7 sacks and 5 ints.
The two main cogs in New Orleans' linebacking corps is Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. Both are stout in run defense, but are limited in coverage. The Saints brought back Ramon Humber and Parys Haralson, who could both see some more playing time in sub packages. Khairi Fortt was the Saints 4th round pick, and could develop into coverage linebacker the Saints desperately need. Victor Butler returns from a torn ACL suffered last year during OTA's, and gives the Saints another true 3-4 OLB they lacked last year, which forced the team into a 4-2-5 base defense.
Atlanta suffered their own loss in OTA's this off-season, losing linebacker Sean Weatherspoon for the year. Weatherspoon has battled injuries for much of his time in the league, derailing an otherwise promising career. Atlanta are expected to rely on a combo of young linebackers in Worrillow and Bartu, who are both entering their second year. It is said that players make the biggest leap from year one to year two, and Atlanta desperately needs this to be the case for both players. Cornerbacks
: Image: http://www.trbimg.com/img-52d03bb7/turbine/la-keenan-lewis-corey-white-20140110/600/16x9
1. New Orleans
2. Tampa Bay
Keenan Lewis emerged as a legitimate shut-down corner last year, and New Orleans is now looking for a #2 corner to rise from this deep and talented group. Champ Bailey signed a 2 year deal in the off-season, and the future HOF looks to have a bounce back season now that he's healthy. Patrick Robinson played in only two games last season before tearing his patellar tendon. Robinson quietly became the Saints top performing cover corner in 2011 before having a disastrous season in 2012. Robinson has the talent and has shown in the past that he can perform. Health is the question. Corey White played rather well in the #2 spot last year after Jabri Greer went out with a season ending injury, but he looks more poised to be the nickel back this year. The Saints drafted Stanley Jean Baptist in the 2nd round, who is a physical specimen who is reportedly picking up the defense quicker than expected during OTA's. Rod Sweeting rounds out the group, who made the team last year as an UDFA.
Tampa Bay parted ways with Darrell Revis, who played for just one year after trading for the star CB. Alterraun Verner was brought in, who better fits with the Tampa 2 system. Jonathan Banks is a big 6-2 corner who can be disruptive near the LOS and redirect receivers.
Atlanta drafted two CB's in last year's draft in Trufant and Alford, and they could provide long term stability at the position. Both started in the season opener last year and held up well.
Carolina brought in Antione Cason, who was a former starter for the Chargers, but played in a back up role last year for the Cardinals. Charles Godfrey, who is moving from safety to corner, only played in 2 games last year. 2nd year corner Melvin White has excellent size that will be needed for some of the bigger targets in the division. He had a fine rookie year, hauling in 2 INTS. Safeties:
1. New Orleans
2. Tampa Bay
New Orleans went from an embarrassment at the safety position to an embarrassment of riches. They surprised everyone by landing Jarius Byrd to a 6 year deal right at the start of free agency. The signing gives the team a true center field safety, which will allow the defense to be more aggressive towards the ball. The team is hoping that not only will Byrd haul in interceptions, but that it'll have a trickle down effect to the rest of the defense. 2nd year safety Kenny Vaccaro looks to benefit the most from the acquisition. Vaccaro played all over the field last year, but looks to play in a more focused role this year. Rafael Bush signed an offer sheet with Atlanta, but New Orleans chose to match. Bush developed last year into a quality, deep cover safety, and also has a propensity for hard hits. Vinni Sunseri, drafted in the 5th round, looks to be a special teams ace and a role player in sub packages.
Tampa Bay has a solid safety tandem in Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron. Both are big, hard hitting safeties that look to intimidate receivers coming across the middle of the field and down the seams. Both safeties will need to be bigger players in the turnover game if they hope to compete for the division or a wild card birth this year.
I disputed for a bit on who to put last, but ultimately decided that Carolina earned the spot. While DeCoud and Harper are both former starters, both were jettisoned from their long time teams, which isn't what you want to insert into your own starting lineups. DeCoud was routinely abused last year. Harper had a nice career in New Orleans, but has a limited skill set and is up in age. Atlanta isn't in all that much better shape, but has at least one respectable safety in William Moore. Honestly you could probably switch the two, but point being, both are in bad shape.