The NFL's new league year begins on March 17 at 4:00 p.m., but teams are already working to shape their 2021 rosters. For most teams, this is a time to try to re-sign some of their own pending free agents and/or trim the roster for salary cap reasons. While this is happening and in advance of the start of free agency, we're reviewing the four teams in the NFC South in terms of where they stand at six different spots on the depth chart.
Today we're looking at the defensive fronts for the Falcons, Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers, including defensive tackles, defensive ends and edge-rushing outside linebackers. Previous reviews have looked at those teams' quarterbacks, offensive skill positions and offensive lines.
As judged by rushing yards allowed and sack rates, the Buccaneers and Saints got the best performances in the division from their front-line defenders. That's a hardly a surprise, given that those were the NFC South's two playoff teams, as they met in the Divisional Round in New Orleans. However, both of those playoff squads face the possibility of losing several key figures in those defensive fronts, while the Panthers can build around several recent high draft picks and the Falcons have their most important lineman under contract for two more years.
Atlanta's defense fared well against the run in 2020, ranking sixth in the league with 104.8 yards allowed per game. However, their ongoing struggle to find an impact edge rusher continued last year, with the Falcons ranking 26th in the league with a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 4.65%. That's the third year in a row that the Falcons have finished in the bottom seven in that category.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is the linchpin of the Falcons' offensive front and his current contract runs through 2022. Jarrett doesn't put up huge sack totals, with 25.5 over his first six seasons, but he is a very disruptive force up the middle and an always active defender. His 4.0 sacks last year were just 0.5 off the team lead, with off-ball linebacker getting 4.5 to pace the team. Jarrett was the biggest reason the Falcons were stout against the run and he very deservedly made the Pro Bowl for a second straight season.
The Falcons have tried to find a productive edge rusher in recent years but haven't had much luck. Takkarist McKinley, a first-round pick in 2017, had 13.0 sacks in his first two seasons but just 4.5 in the two seasons since, including one in four games in 2020 before the Falcons released him on November 10. Last March, Atlanta signed Dante Fowler, the former third-overall pick by Jacksonville in 2015 who had revived his career with an 11.5-sack campaign for the Rams in 2019. However, Fowler produced just 3.0 sacks and eight QB hits in his first year in Atlanta. The Falcons will have a new defensive scheme after changing coaching staffs this offseason and will hope that Fowler, who carries a very high cap hit, will be more productive in 2021.
Atlanta also sent a seventh-round draft pick to Miami last May to acquire another former first-rounder who hadn't worked out in defensive end Charles Harris. Harris also topped out at 3.0 sacks for Atlanta in 2020 and is now a pending unrestricted free agent. The player who actually started the most games opposite Fowler was former Buccaneer draft pick Steven Means, a low-key signing in 2018 who had 2.0 sacks over five years at that point. If you're sensing a pattern, Means also recorded 3.0 sacks in 2020. Like Harris, he's a pending free agent.
Atlanta cut defensive end Allen Bailey, who had 1.5 sacks, in February. Their defensive end depth chart doesn't go far beyond Fowler and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, who is a pending exclusive rights free agent. The Falcons have the fourth pick in the first round of the 2021 draft but there isn't a blue-chip edge rush prospect like Chase Young or Nick Bosa in this year's class. They could look to free agency with the likes of Shaq Barrett, Bud Dupree, Trey Hendrickson and Matt Judon possibly hitting the open market, but the Falcons currently need to trim about $20 million of cap space before the new season begins.
Atlanta's interior front is in better shape, with both Garrett and fellow starter Tyeler Davison returning in 2021. There is also good depth with recent draft picks Marlon Davidson, John Cominsky and Deadrin Senat. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner is an exclusive rights free agent so will likely be back, as well. If Atlanta does devote any significant resources to its defensive front it will probably be on the edges.
The Panthers made four selections among the top 38 picks in the last two drafts, and three of them have addressed the defensive front. After using the 16th pick on edge rusher Brian Burns in 2019 they started their 2020 draft with defensive tackle Derrick Brown at number seven and defensive end Yatur Gross-Matos at number 38. Burns already looks like a rising star, Brown had an outstanding rookie season and Gross-Matos added 2.5 sacks while playing only about a third of the defensive snaps.
In other words, the Panthers have the makings of a very good defensive front for years to come. That's a group in transition, with Brown ready to become the new anchor in the middle following the release of long-time standout Kawann Short in mid-February. The Panthers have already cut Short, who only played in three games last year, and veteran defensive end Stephen Weatherly, who only played one season in Carolina and is now back with his original team, the Vikings.
There's depth, too. Third-year man Efe Obada, a former undrafted free agent, saw his playing time rise in 2020 and ended up with 5.5 sacks despite making only one start. He's a pending restricted free agent so Carolina should be able to bring him back. Roy Bravvion, who started nine games with Short out, and Zach Kerr, a free agent pickup in 2020 who had a pair of sacks and nine QB hits, both return to join Brown in the middle.
All of that said, the Panthers will need to turn all of that young promise up front into better results in 2021. They finished 20th in rush defense last year, allowing 121.0 yards per game, and didn't generate a high rate of pressure beyond Burns and his 9.0 sacks. The Panthers had just 29 sacks as a team and were 24th in the league with a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 4.96%.
The Panthers have the most cap space in the division, close to $16 million, but they also have four of their five offensive line starters due to hit free agency. They are expected to use their franchise tag on one of those four, Taylor Moton. Carolina also owns the eighth-overall pick in the upcoming draft but would seem more likely to use that on the offensive line if they do not go after a new franchise quarterback.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints joined the Buccaneers and Rams as the only teams to rank in the top seven in both run defense and sacks per pass play in 2020. While New Orleans' offense ranked fifth in points scored, the Saints' defense also ranked fifth in points allowed, leading to a per-game point differential of +9.2 that was second in the NFL only to the Ravens' mark of 10.1. And that great defensive effort started up front with Trey Hendrickson, Cameron Jordan and David Onyemata combining for 27.5 of the team's 44 sacks.
The problem for the Saints moving forward is that Hendrickson, who led that group and tied with Aaron Donald for second in the league with 13.5 sacks, is a pending unrestricted free agent. The second half of that problem is that New Orleans has the worst cap situation in the league in 2020 and has already started a series of releases and contract restructures. There is still a ways to go for the Saints to become cap compliant by March 17, and that obviously adds to the degree of difficulty in trying to retain Hendrickson after his huge breakout season.
Fortunately for the Saints, they do still have six-time Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan under contract through 2024. In fact, he is one of the players with whom the team recently agreed on a restructured deal to gain cap space. Jordan was selected for his fourth straight Pro Bowl this past season after he had another 7.5 sacks and 16 QB hits. Jordan is the Saints' defensive leader and he rarely leaves the field, as one of only two defensive linemen in the NFL to have played at least 80% of his team's defensive snaps in each of the last four seasons.
If Hendrickson does move on via free agency, the Saints will be hoping that 2018 first-round pick Marcus Davenport emerges in his fourth season much the same way that Hendrickson did. The Saints actually spent two first-round picks to get the raw pass rusher because they shipped their top pick in 2019 to Green Bay to move up 13 spots to draft him. However, Davenport has just 12.0 sacks through his first three seasons. The Saints might also be hoping to get something out of former Buccaneer Noah Spence after renegotiating his contract in February following a year spent on injured reserve. Former undrafted free agent Carl Granderson (five sacks in 2020) has also shown some promise.
The Saints could also lose their 2016 first-round pick to free agency, as defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is set to hit the market. However, Rankins has only started one game over the past two seasons and the Saints have their two 2020 starters, Onyemata and Malcom Brown under contract for 2021. Onyemata had 6.5 sacks last season and Brown was a big part of the team's stout run defense, which finished fourth in the NFL with 93.9 yards allowed per game.
The Saints were sixth in the NFL last year with a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 8.08%. Given their cap situation, they will probably have to hope a player like Davenport or Granderson steps up in 2021 to keep up that type of pressure.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
One only needs to look at the last game the Buccaneers played to know how good their defensive front was in 2020. At the same time, a quick glance at the team's list of potential free agents makes it clear how hard it will be to keep that group together in 2021.
That last game was Super Bowl LV, in which the Buccaneers pressured Super Bowl LIV MVP Patrick Mahomes an incredible 29 times on 52 drop-backs, resulting in 3.0 sacks as the high-powered Chiefs were held without a touchdown. Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh recorded 2.5 of those three sacks; both are pending unrestricted free agents, as are defensive linemen Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Steve McLendon.
The Buccaneers have had the NFL's best run defense in each of the last two years, allowing just 80.6 yards per game in 2020, and that starts with Suh and 2018 first-round pick Vita Vea up front. Vea missed the majority of the 2020 season with an ankle injury but did return for the last two games of the postseason and is obviously still playing on his rookie contract. Suh has played each of the past two years in Tampa on one-year deals.
Barrett has 27.5 sacks over his two seasons as a Buccaneer, second only to Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt in that span. After five seasons as a rotational player in Denver, he signed with the Bucs to get a shot at starting and immediately led the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2019. That earned him the franchise tag in 2020, which has led to him being on the verge of free agency again. The Buccaneers are highly motivated to try to bring back both Suh and Barrett if possible.
The Buccaneers do have their 2020 sack leader, Jason Pierre-Paul, under contract for 2020 after signing him to a new two-year deal last spring. They also have 2019 fourth-round pick Anthony Nelson, who was their primary third man in the edge-rushing rotation last year. Cam Gill, who had the Bucs' other half of a sack in the Super Bowl, was an undrafted free agent last year and could get a chance to fill a larger role.
Overall, the Buccaneers tied for fourth in the NFL with 48 sacks during the regular season, which was the second-highest single-season total in franchise history. Their 7.78% sacks-per-pass-play figure was seventh-best in the NFL, and in the postseason the Bucs racked up another 10 sacks in four games. Obviously, the franchise would like to keep that group intact. The Buccaneers also could target an edge rusher or defensive lineman with the 32nd pick in the 2021 draft, something that might become more crucial if either Barrett or Suh does not return.