The NFC South has traditionally been one of the NFL's most competitive divisions, and it joins the NFC West as the only groups to send all four of its teams to a Super Bowl since the 2002 realignment. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints were two of the last four teams standing in the conference and, of course, the Buccaneers went all the way to the Super Bowl LV championship.
The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers were both down in 2020 and are picking among the top 10 spots in the 2021 draft, but the NFC South also has an incredible history of quick rebounds, including six instances of a team going from last one season to first the next. The Bucs' division is also the only one in which each team has won three division titles since the realignment. The Falcons have a new head coach in Arthur Smith and the Panthers are going into just the second year of the Matt Rhule era. It would be unwise to count any of the NFC South's four teams out for 2020.
That said, there are clearly positions at which some of the teams in the division are stronger than others, or at least more unsettled. For instance, the Buccaneers and Saints had the most effective defensive fronts in the division in 2020 but both of those teams has work to do to field as strong of a unit in 2020. Meanwhile, the Panthers may have to rebuild almost their entire offensive line while the rest of the division returns almost all of its starters in 2021.
With free agency about to begin and possibly disrupt or enhance each team's effort to build strong position groups, we've been examining where all four NFC South teams stand at six different spots. In addition to those noted above, we've also looked at the teams' quarterbacks, offensive skill positions and off-ball linebackers.
We finish the series at the back end of the defense, with defensive backfields that could see significant departures in Atlanta and New Orleans. Tampa Bay has already invested heavily in its secondary in recent drafts and isn't likely to prioritize that part of the depth chart in this year's draft. Carolina has some interesting young assets in the secondary but it's not yet clear how they will all fit together.
The Falcons seem to have found a keeper with the 16th-overall pick in last year's draft, as Clemson's A.J. Terrell has locked down one starting spot. He had some of the usual ups and downs that rookie cornerbacks face but by the end of the season was clearly the team's best player at that spot.
That's where the 2021 certainties end for the Falcons. The team also returns the two other corners who saw the most snaps in 2020 – 2018 second-rounder Isaiah Oliver and 2019 fourth-rounder Kendall Sheffield – but they have combined for just one interception in five total seasons so far and might not be considered long-term solutions. Meanwhile, cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Blidi Wreh-Wilson are headed towards unrestricted free agency. The rest of the corner dept chart consists of 2020 undrafted free agents Tyler Hall, Delrick Abrams and Chris Williamson.
The safety position is even more likely to have a brand new look in 2021. Rookie safety Jaylinn Hawkins, a fourth-round pick in 2020, saw just 76 snaps on defense in his first year but that makes him the most experienced safety currently under contract. That became true when the team released Ricardo Allen in mid-February to clear up cap space. Meanwhile, star safety Keanu Neal will be hitting free agency after not getting the franchise tag, as will safeties Damontae Kazee and Sharrod Neasman.
Neal missed most of the 2018-19 seasons due to injuries, appearing in just four games, but he was a Pro Bowler the season before that and he came back with a good 2020 rebound season before hitting free agency. The Falcons have a tight cap situation and may not be able to bring Neal back if another team dangles a big contract based on his pre-injury form. The only other safety on the roster is T.J. Green, who made some starts for the Colts in 2016 and 2017 but over the last two years has appeared in exactly one game each for the non-Tampa Bay teams in the NFC South.
The Falcons own the fourth, 35th and 68th pick in the upcoming draft, and if they choose not to use their top selection on Matt Ryan's eventual replacement they will likely try to shore up the front or the back of the defense. They could use an edge rusher but may not find one worthy of a top-10 pick. That means Atlanta could address its secondary in the first round, and maybe even devote multiple picks to it if they can trade down a bit and add some more draft assets.
Of course, Falcons fans may not be too upset to see the secondary overhauled, even if its by depth chart necessity. Atlanta ranked dead last in pass defense in 2020, giving up 293.6 yards per game. An anemic pass rush didn't help but the Falcons' defensive backs did not get their hands on the football with regularity. Atlanta's pass defense has not ranked in the NFL's top half since 2017.
The most interesting player in the Panthers' secondary is listed as a linebacker on the team's official website.
As noted in the linebacker edition of this series, second-round draft pick made a big impact on the Carolina defense as a rookie, essentially playing both safety and strongside linebacker, sometimes within consecutive snaps. With the release of veteran free safety Tre Boston last month, Chinn could step into a starting spot next to Juston Burris or, more likely, he could continue to play all over the formation.
All seven of Carolina's draft picks in 2020 were on the defensive side of the ball, including four defensive backs (including Chinn). That gives the team some baked-in depth in the secondary, but neither fifth-round safety Kenny Robinson nor seventh-round corner Stantley Thomas-Oliver played any meaningful snaps as rookies. On the other hand, fourth-round corner Troy Pride was pressed into a big role due to some injuries and produced middling results, with no interceptions and just two passes defensed. At the moment, Pride would likely pair with Donte Jackson as the starting corners in 2021. Jackson, a 2018 second-round pick, has 10 picks through three seasons.
There is no real veteran depth at the corner position for Carolina. Rasul Douglas and Corn Elder are both pending unrestricted free agents. The Panthers also cut Natrell Jamerson last month, though he only played in nine games over his two seasons in Carolina, with no starts. Behind Burris and maybe Chinn, the safety depth consists of Robinson, midseason pickup Sean Chandler (zero NFL starts) and 2020 college free agent Sam Franklin.
Carolina's pass defense was middle of the pack in 2020, ranking 18th in yards allowed per game and 10th in yards allowed per play. It's worth wondering how much of that is a result of a bad Panthers' run defense that made passing against them a little less of a priority. Even with Jackson's three picks the Panthers only recorded seven interceptions during the season.
New Orleans Saints
As much as the Saints are trying to navigate their treacherous cap situation right now they are continuing to reap the dividends from their incredible 2017 draft class. That currently includes top corner Marshon Lattimore, who will play 2021 on the fifth-year team option of his rookie deal, and safety Marcus Williams, who got the franchise tag from the Saints last week.
While it might not be easy to work Williams' tag salary into the mix, it's understandable that the Saints would want to keep him around. The former second-round pick has been among the league's best safeties throughout his first four years in the league, and last year he added three more interceptions to give him 13 already.
That Williams tag was the rare expenditure at a time that New Orleans is mostly cutting players and restructuring contracts to trim what had been more than a $60 million surplus over the 2021 cap at the beginning. Among those released was veteran cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who started all 13 games he played last season and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. That leaves an obvious hole to fill in the starting lineup, though Patrick Robinson could step up while C.J. Gardner-Johnson remains in the slot, where he flourished in 2020.
Meanwhile, cornerbacks P.J. Williams, Justin Hardee and Ken Crawley are all pending unrestricted free agents, which creates some depth concerns. Former undrafted free agent Keith Washington remains as a potential option. At safety, D.J. Swearinger and Johnson Bademosi are also set to be free agents, with little else on hand besides undrafted player J.T. Gray.
Unlike the first two teams on this list, the Saints did have excellent results in pass defense in 2020. In fact, New Orleans ranked in the top 10 in virtually every defensive category, including passing yards per game (fifth), yards per pass play (sixth) and interception rate (fourth). The Saints had a talented secondary led by Lattimore and Williams and they also benefitted from strong pressure up front. New Orleans is having to work hard to keep a strong roster intact for 2020 but they do still have those two excellent defensive backs plus Gardner-Johnson to get their secondary off to a good start.
The Saints have the 28th and 60th picks in the first two rounds of the draft. They lost their third-rounder due to COVID protocol violations but got one back in the compensatory process. Picking late in the first round, New Orleans is not likely to land a young replacement for the now-officially retired Drew Brees, but they could look for some replacements for their many anticipated departures on defense. With heady and versatile veteran Malcolm Jenkins returning to pair with Williams at safety, cornerback would seem like a more obvious target.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Unlike the rest of the division, the Buccaneers will have no cap casualties or free agency departures in their starting secondary in 2021. All five of their starters (including the third corner) were drafted in the first four rounds of the last three drafts, so Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield, Jr. are all under contract for the upcoming season. So is reserve safety Mike Edwards, a third-round pick in 2019 who played a good amount of snaps on defense in 2020 as well.
Davis, a second-round pick in 2018, has rounded into one of the NFL's better cover corners and he leads the league over the past two years with 37 passes defensed. No other player has more than 30. Dean and Murphy-Bunting saw their roles shift back and forth a bit during the 2020 season but for the most part they joined Davis as the main three corners in the very prevalent sub package. Davis led the team with four interceptions during the regular season, while the other two had just one each, but Murphy-Bunting flourished in the postseason with a pick in each of the team's first three games.
All three of those front-line corners missed a couple of games along the way due to injuries but the September signing of veteran Ross Cockrell proved to be a lifesaver. Cockrell filled in very well, particularly in the slot, and kept the secondary tight at various points in the season. However, Cockrell came on with a one-year deal so is now a pending unrestricted free agent. The same is true of cornerback Ryan Smith, a 2016 fourth-round pick who has primarily been a special teams ace during his five seasons in the league. The Buccaneers also re-signed cornerback Herb Miller, who provided some good depth down the stretch as a frequent call-up from the practice squad.
With Winfield, Whitehead and Edwards, the Buccaneers are also pretty set at safety, particularly considering that Winfield looks like a star in the making. The 2020 second-round pick was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month in September and he capped his impressive debut season with an interception in the Super Bowl. Winfield rarely came off the field in his rookie season, while the coaches eventually got creative with how they deployed Winfield, an in-the-box thumper, and Edwards, a centerfield ball-hawk.
Veteran Andrew Adams, who played extensively in 2019 but wasn't needed much on defense last year, is an unrestricted free agent but the Bucs could choose to bring him back. Rookie Javon Hagan spent most of the year on the practice squad but was active for the NFC Championship Game; he could figure into the team's safety depth in 2021.
The Buccaneers still have some depth questions on defense which could impact what they do with the 32nd pick in the 2021 draft, but they are mostly concentrated on the front line. Tampa Bay is not likely in a position to spend heavily in free agency or the draft on their secondary, mostly because they have already done so in recent years and it paid off big time in 2020.