Carolina Panthers

Ranking the NFC South defenses

dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Ranking the defensive groupings in the NFC South:

Defensive line

The Panthers have three of their four starting spots figured out, but that right defensive end position is yearning for Kony Ealy to take ownership. It took coach Ron Rivera a month to name him the starter. Add in the rotation at defensive tackle and the Panthers look to be the best in the NFC South on the defensive line.

Gerald McCoy is the best defensive tackle in the division and George Johnson looks good on the end, so the Bucs slightly edge out the Saints, who boast Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks – two players who have given the Panthers fits.

The Falcons are young along the line with Vic Beasley and Ra’Shade Hageman but have some promise.

1 Carolina

2 Tampa Bay

3 New Orleans

4 Atlanta

Linebackers

The Panthers could very likely have the best linebacker group in the NFL, so this is an easy call for No. 1 in the division. Kuechly is one of the top defenders in the league and the criminally underrated Thomas Davis is one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in the game.

Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David is the kind of player Carolina’s Shaq Thompson hopes to become, and teamed with Carter in a formidable duo with the Bucs.

These two groups are so far above the other two it’s almost comical. Dannelle Ellerbe’s presence puts the Saints above the Falcons.

1 Carolina

2 Tampa Bay

3 New Orleans

4 Atlanta

Secondary

If healthy, the Saints could be trouble with their defensive backfield. Jairus Byrd was an All Pro before he went on injured reserve last year, and Brandon Browner brings the Seahawks’ mentality to the secondary. Kenny Vacarro needs to step up this year.

In Carolina, Josh Norman hopes to replicate last season, and doing so would make him a rich man. The safeties in pass coverage will be something to watch.

Atlanta allowed just 20 receiving touchdowns last year.

Tampa Bay brings the hits and created several turnovers in the preseason, but they could look better than they are because of the seven in front of them.

1 New Orleans

2 Carolina

3 Atlanta

4 Tampa Bay

Defensive line

1 Carolina

2 Tampa Bay

3 New Orleans

4 Atlanta

Linebackers

1 Carolina

2 Tampa Bay

3 New Orleans

4 Atlanta

Secondary

1 New Orleans

2 Carolina

3 Atlanta

4 Tampa Bay

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