The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV, which was the ultimate prize of the 2020 NFL season, but the New Orleans Saints actually won the NFC South for the fourth season in a row. The path to a title defense in 2021 would be significantly less daunting if the Buccaneers could break the Saints' stranglehold on the division crown. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons with a new coaching staff and a potent offense and the Carolina Panthers with a core of young standouts will be trying to do the same.
As such, in advance of free agency, we're reviewing the four teams in the NFC South in terms of where they stand at six different areas on the depth chart. Which teams have the deepest position groups and got the best results in 2020? Which face potential free agency losses? Which might be targeting a certain spot in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Today we're looking at the off-ball linebackers for the Falcons, Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers. We already looked at edge-rushing linebackers like the Bucs' Shaq Barrett when we examined the team's defensive fronts last week. Previous reviews have looked at those teams' quarterbacks, offensive skill positions and offensive lines. We'll conclude the review on Tuesday with a breakdown of the four NFC South secondaries.
The Falcons and Buccaneers both boast very strong inside linebacker duos, and now Tampa Bay's tandem is under contract for 2020 after last week's announcement of a new deal for Lavonte David. The Panthers have a potential young star at the position but are still trying to adjust to life without Luke Kuechly, and the Saints may have to rely on some young players stepping up if they can't add to the position during a difficult time with the salary cap.
The middle of the Falcons' defense is in much better shape than the front or the back, with all three of their main linebackers from 2020 returning, led by sixth-year star Deion Jones. Meanwhile, the defensive front lacks edge-rushing juice and the secondary could have as many as four new starters (out of five) in 2021.
Jones has been to one Pro Bowl in his first five seasons but as the Buccaneers' talented inside linebackers know quite well, it's hard to get all-star nods at that position. Jones has definitely played at a high level throughout his young career and there are few NFL linebackers who can match his coverage abilities. Last year, the former second-round pick even added pass-rushing prowess to his game, leading the team with 4.5 sacks, 2.5 more than he had recorded during the first four seasons of his career. He also picked off two passes, had six passes defensed and tallied nine tackles for loss.
Meanwhile, 2018 sixth-round pick Foyesade Oluokun made sure the Falcons didn't miss De'Vondre Campbell, who left for Arizona in free agency. Oluokun, who had shown promise in a bit of action in 2019, stepped fully into a starting role and led the team with 117 tackles. He also recorded 3.0 sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles in what was an all-around robust stat line. Like most teams, the Falcons spend more time in dime and nickel packages than with three linebackers on the field, and the duo of Jones and Oluokun has them as set for 2021 as they are at any position. In addition, Jones is still just getting to the middle of his second NFL contract, a five-year deal that runs through 2023.
If that wasn't enough, 2020 fourth-round pick Mykal Walker looks like he may have been a steal. The former Fresno State standout was the team's third linebacker last season and ended up playing about 36% of the defensive snaps while making six starts. The Falcons were pleased with the results, which included 39 tackles, two quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a pass defensed.
The Falcons may need to add some depth at the position but it almost surely isn't a priority in free agency or the draft. LaRoy Reynolds and Edmond Robinson are both headed to free agency but both played almost exclusively on special teams.
The Panthers enjoyed the Luke Kuechly-Thomas Davis era for quite some time but it hasn't been easy to move on. The good news comes in the form of a second-round pick who was labeled as a safety during the 2020 draft.
Kuechly, who had a long history of concussions, retired after the 2019 season with seven Pro Bowls in eight years under his belt. He was possibly the NFL's best middle linebacker during the last decade. Thomas Davis overlapped with him for seven of those seasons and went to two Pro Bowls as well. Though he played elsewhere the past two seasons, Davis recently announced his NFL retirement as a Panther.
Carolina's immediate attempt to replace Kuechly was to sign veteran Tahir Whitehead, who had played the previous two seasons in Oakland. It did not go particularly well and Whitehead is again a free agent who is not expected to return to Carolina.
The Panthers had prepared for the eventual departure of Davis with the selection of Shaq Thompson in the first round in 2015 but Thompson did not have his best season in 2020 after the retirement of Kuechly. That said, he's a clear starter for 2021 and a candidate for a big rebound. The Panthers also have Jermaine Carter, a fifth-round pick in 2018 who looked good when he got an extended opportunity to play near the end of the season.
The wild card is that 2020 second-round pick, Jeremy Chinn. Carolina traded a fifth-round pick to move up five spots and nab Chinn with the last pick of that round and that proved to be a brilliant move as the former Southern Illinois player was a realistic candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. While he was designated as a safety during the draft, the Panthers actually used him as both a safety and a strongside linebacker, and he spent the majority of his snaps close to the line of scrimmage. Buccaneer fans will remember Chinn as the one Panther who nearly prevented Ronald Jones from completing his 98-yard touchdown run in Week 10.
Chinn led the Panthers with 116 tackles and also had a sack, an interception, five quarterback hits, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He famously scored on both of his fumble recoveries on consecutive plays from scrimmage against Minnesota in Week 12. The Panthers' website lists Chinn as a linebacker and he's likely to continue to play a versatile role in 2021.
Depth linebackers Adarius Taylor and Julian Stanford are both pending unrestricted free agents, but neither played a role on defense last year. Stanford has been with five teams in eight seasons and last played meaningful snaps on defense in 2016 with the Jets. The Panthers would seem to be primarily in the market for a new starting middle linebacker, and while that may not be their choice in Round One with needs at quarterback and offensive line, they also have the 39th overall pick in the draft.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints' roster is in flux at a lot of positions as they try to whittle down their 2021 cap hit from an initial position of more than $60 million over. That effort has not left the linebacker position untouched.
The Saints made an interesting trade in early November, acquiring former Buccaneer Kwon Alexander from the 49ers to pair with 2019 All-Pro Demario Davis in the middle of their defense. However, Alexander's unfortunate injury history continued as, after seven games and seven starts with the Saints he tore an Achilles tendon. Alexander's contract had no guaranteed money after 2020 and that made him an obvious cut for the Saints, who did exactly that last week.
Davis had a high cap hit too but the Saints kept him and helped their situation by restructuring his contract. Davis didn't repeat as an Associated Press All-Pro in 2020 but it wasn't for a lack of production. He led the team with 119 tackles and added four sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits and five passes defensed. He's under contract through 2024, though that last season is an automatic voidable year. Davis did still get second-team AP honors, just like the Bucs' Lavonte David and Devin White.
Alex Anzalone, a 2017 third-round pick who has mostly failed to impress and has had significant injury issues, too, did start nine games last season but he's a pending unrestricted free agent and the Saints don't have a lot of room to operate. Backup Craig Robertson, who was last a regular starter in 2017, didn't open any games last year and is an unrestricted free agent.
The Saints could end up relying more on 2020 second-round pick Zack Baun, who started three games as a rookie but had just 82 defensive snaps overall. Baun was considered a versatile prospect during the draft who might be able to contribute both as an edge-rusher and an off-ball linebacker. The Saints also have 2019 seventh-round pick Kaden Ellis, who was strictly a special-teamer in his first two seasons. Otherwise, the team's depth at the position consists of three players it signed to futures contracts after the season, two of whom had been on their practice squad: Chase Hansen, Andrew Dowell and Wynton McManis. Those three have combined to play in five regular-season games.
The Saints have the 28th, 60th and 96th picks in the first two days of the 2021 draft but likely have bigger needs at the other two levels of their defense. They may look first to internal candidates to step up at linebacker.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
All is good.
The Buccaneers are in excellent position for at least the next couple years after Lavonte David signed a new deal last Friday to stay with the only NFL team he's known. He and Devin White, a 2019 first-round pick, should continue to form one of the league's best inside-linebacker duos in the NFL for several more seasons.
As noted above, both David and White were second-team Associated Press All-Pros in 2020, though it's possible that fails to do the two justice. White lead the team with 140 tackles and 15 tackles for loss and also recorded 9.0 sacks, becoming the only player in the NFL with at least 100 stops and at least nine sacks. David had his usual across-the-board stat line, with 117 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three QB hits, one interception, six passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Bucs fans know what they have in White and David and there's not much point in diving too much deeper into it. On the other hand, there isn't much depth at the position, particularly with Kevin Minter due to become an unrestricted free agent again. Since the Buccaneers almost never have three off-ball linebackers on the field together, they are fine as long as David and White remain healthy but they are currently razor thin in terms of contingency plans.
Minter has been quite valuable for two seasons as a core special teams player who has always been ready to step up at linebacker if needed. He did so for the final regular-season game of 2020 and the Wild Card playoff contest when White was on the COVID list, and the Bucs' defense didn't miss a beat. Again, however, he is currently a pending free agent, just as he was the last two years before re-signing with Tampa Bay.
Jack Cichy, who has career has mostly been marked by lengthy injury absences, returned to Tampa late last season but would be a restricted free agent if the Buccaneers extend a qualifying offer. Deone Bucannon also came back to the team for a late-season cameo but didn't play on defense and is a pending unrestricted free agents. There are no other off-ball linebackers on the roster.
The Buccaneers have the 32nd, 64th and 95th picks in the 2021 draft and could have the luxury of picking for depth at just about any spot if they can continue to bring back their own free agents. That already happened with David, which means any additions the Bucs make at linebacker in 2021 will strictly be for depth or the future of the position.