The Snapshot Series is back this week focusing on the defensive line talent in the NFC South. There's a handful of interesting players along the defensive line in the division. Big names like Gerald McCoy, Kawann Short, and Cameron Jordan catch most of the publicity, but underrated players including Jacquies Smith, Jonathan Babineaux, and Kyle Love deserve praise as well.
Each team in the NFC South made at least one significant addition to their defensive line in the offseason through free agency and the draft. Here's a quick overview of those moves:
New Orleans Saints - Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville (Round 1)
Carolina Panthers - Vernon Butler, DT, Louisiana Tech (Round 1)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky (Round 2)
Carolina Panthers - Paul Soliai, NT, Atlanta Falcons
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Robert Ayers, DE/DT, New York Giants
New Orleans Saints - Nick Fairley, DT, St. Louis Rams
First, let's look at individual performance (free agents included) taking the top eight players in Sacks, Stuffs, and Quarterback Hurries.
(Note: A few linebackers produced well enough to rank on these lists, but this is only focusing on defensive linemen.)
1. Kawann Short, Carolina: 11
2. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans: 10
3. Robert Ayers, Tampa Bay: 9.5
4. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay: 8.5
5. Jacquies Smith, Tampa Bay: 7
6. Mario Addison, Carolina: 6
7. Kony Ealy, Carolina/Howard Jones, Tampa Bay: 5
8. Vic Beasley, Atlanta: 4
Stuffs (via SportingCharts) (Top 5)
1. Kawann Short, Carolina: 8
2. Jonathan Babineaux, Atlanta/William Gholston, Tampa Bay: 6
3. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans/Bobby Richardson, New Orleans: 5
4. Derrick Shelby, Atlanta/Kevin Williams, New Orleans: 4
5. Paul Soliai, Carolina Panthers/Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons/George Johnson, Tampa Bay: 3
Quarterback Hurries (via SportingCharts)
1. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans: 27
2. Kawann Short, Carolina: 23
3. Vic Beasley, Atlanta: 22
4. Robert Ayers, Tampa Bay: 18
5. Derrick Shelby, Atlanta: 16
6. Mario Addison, Carolina/Kony Ealy, Carolina: 15
7. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay: 13
8. Charles Johnson, Carolina: 11
The strength of the defensive lines in the NFC South resides on the interior. Kawann Short had a breakout season with 11 sacks and 23 quarterback hurries while Gerald McCoy continued to be a stalwart in the middle of Tampa Bay's defense.
What sets these two players apart from the rest of the group is their footwork, power, penetration, and ability to ruthlessly execute what their defense asks of them. The Panthers defensive line calls for a lot of slants and movement techniques.
This is an area where Short excels. He easily swivels around offensive linemen, which made him one of the most disruptive defensive players in the league last year.
Tampa Bay doesn't utilize slants as much as the Panthers, but Gerald McCoy is dominant enough to execute plays on the move even when slants aren't part of the defensive call. McCoy has all the nuances of defensive line play mastered; his hands and feet are always in sync which allows him to always stay in his gap.
McCoy and Short also have the ability to be devastating pass rushers on the interior. McCoy has elite athleticism to pair with supreme technical prowess, Short is more of a bully bowling over offensive guards and timing bull rushes well to get to the quarterback.
The less heralded defensive tackles in the South still pack a nice punch. Star Lotulelei and Jonathan Babineaux are the best of that "second tier" behind Short and McCoy. Lotulelei has the power to play over the center and is athletic enough to play three technique. Babineaux is the classic "undersized" 3-technique that wins with quickness, explosion, and leverage.
Over the past eight or nine seasons, Babineaux has easily been Atlanta's best interior player and he hasn't shown signs of slowing down just yet.
Here's a great example of Star Lotulelei showing off his power and movement ability in the second game against the Falcons. He blows up Mike Person off the snap of the ball and naturally flows sideways to bring Devonta Freeman down for a loss. If Lotulelei can stay completely healthy, the Panthers are going to have a top defense yet again with their talent at linebacker.
The Saints defensive tackle talent a season ago wasn't very impressive, which is why the spent resources on Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley. However, Atlanta does have two prospects in Grady Jarrett and Ra'Shede Hageman that look to make big leaps in their second and third seasons, respectively.
Hageman has been touted as a freak of nature since his time with the Minnesota Gophers who needs to be coached up to actually harness those athletic gifts. Jarrett (who is by no means a slouch athletically) came into Atlanta more prepared to make an immediate impact and it showed last season. Jarrett is moving from 3-technique to nose tackle and Hageman is moving from 3-technique to 4-technique defensive end (I personally consider this an inside position).
Flashes will be there for both as they make position switches, but expect plenty of growing pains to exist between the two. Remember, they're still young players.
The defensive end talent in the NFC South is less than inspiring. The clear-cut best defensive end is the Saints' Cameron Jordan. Jordan did it all for their defensive line last year. He thrived on the inside and outside, was stout against the run, and finished with 10 sacks and a handful of quarterback hurries.
Outside of Jordan, there are three players to peg as "players to watch" in the upcoming season: Atlanta's Vic Beasley, Carolina's Kony Ealy, and Tampa Bay's Jacquies Smith. Of three, Beasley is probably the best bet to have a breakout season in 2016.
Ealy and Smith both greatly benefitted from having dominant interior players next to them as they rushed the passer. Beasley obviously didn't have that luxury, yet he was one of the most productive pass rushers in the NFC South (from a hurry standpoint) and showed flashes of elite, game breaking ability.
Atlanta may not have the most talented defensive line right now, but this is a group with a ton of potential. Beasley and Jarrett are ascending players while Hageman needs to continue putting it together and make his flashes of brilliance much more consistent. Throw in Adrian Clayborn, a slimmed down Brooks Reed, and Derrick Shelby into the mix and this might be a group that can get pressure on the quarterback.
Newcomers on the defensive line will have a major impact on the group in 2016. Robert Ayers, Nick Fairley, and Derrick Shelby are talented veterans capable of making an instant impact for their respective teams. The two highly touted rookies of the group, Sheldon Rankins and Vernon Butler, both have the ability to earn significant reps and play well early in their careers.
Here's how I would rank the top five defensive linemen, the top 5 under 25 years old, and the overall team rankings.
Top 5 Defensive Linemen:
1. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay
2. Kawann Short, Carolina
3. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans
4. Star Lotulelei, Carolina
5. Jonathan Babineaux, Atlanta
Top 5 Under 25:
1. Vic Beasley, Atlanta
2. Grady Jarrett, Atlanta
3. Sheldon Rankins, New Orleans*
4. Vernon Butler, Carolina*
5. Kony Ealy, Carolina
(* = Rookie)
Defensive Line Rankings:
1. Carolina Panthers
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
3. New Orleans Saints
4. Atlanta Falcons
Next week we'll take a look at the wide receiver talent in the South.