Editor's Note: This is part of a series ranking the various position groups in the NFC South ahead of the 2020 season.
There are few things on a football field more difficult to contain than a dominant defensive line. A unit capable of shutting down an opposing run game and pressuring the quarterback without an added blitzer can make any team very hard to beat.
Given the importance of quality play in the trenches many of the NFC South teams made a big offseason move for its defensive line. The Falcons sought to bolster their pass rush by signing edge rusher Dante Fowler, who had a career-best 11.5 sacks in 2019. Carolina made a big addition to the interior of its defensive line by drafting Derrick Brown, while both Tampa Bay and New Orleans re-signed Ndamukong Suh and David Onyemata, respectively, keeping key parts of their defensive lines in place.
Continuing our NFC South position group rankings, let's have a refresher on which factors we're looking at. The rankings will be based on five categories, and each team will be rated on a 1-4 scale – 1 being the best and 4 being the worst. The categories are as follows:
Best player: How good is the No. 1 option?
Drop-off factor: The drop in ability from the No. 1 option to No. 2.
Returning production: Are the top producers from 2019 back with the team in 2020?
Consistency: How long has the group been together?
Depth: How deep is the unit, top to bottom?
Aggregate score: 3.6
- Top player: Kawann Short
- Best player: 4
- Drop-off factor: 4
- Returning production: 4
- Consistency: 4
- Depth: 2
This ranking is probably not as generous as it should be, but that's only because the Panthers' defensive line is very much in flux. For starters, Carolina is expected to transition back to a 4-3 base defense after spending one season giving the 3-4 front a look. This should mostly impact players like Brian Burns, who had a strong rookie year and finished with 7.5 sacks despite playing through a wrist injury. First-round draft pick Derrick Brown was considered one of the top defenders in this year's class and should immediately upgrade the Panthers' interior unit.
Although he's been hampered by injuries the past two seasons, Kawaan Short is a good penetrating defensive end when healthy and should benefit from Brown drawing double teams next to him. By adding rookie Yetur Gross-Matos to a rotation that will also include Efe Obada, Marquis Haynes and Christian Miller, the Panthers will have quality depth off the edge. Carolina finished with the second-most sacks in the league in 2019, but a vast number of the team's sack leaders are no longer on the roster.
Aggregate score: 2.8
- Top player: Grady Jarrett
- Best player: 2
- Drop-off factor: 3
- Returning production: 3
- Consistency: 3
- Depth: 3
After trying to generate a consistent pass rush off the edge in recent seasons, the Falcons have made a big chance. Atlanta allowed Vic Beasley to walk in free agency, and the Falcons signed former Rams edge rusher Dante Fowler to be their top pass rusher. Fowler had a career-high 11.5 sacks last season, and the former No. 3-overall pick appears to be on the upswing after suffering an ACL injury as a rookie in 2015. Outside of Fowler, Jarrett returns as the clear leader of this defensive line. After earning his first Pro Bowl invitation last season, Jarrett, who had 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss in 2019, is finally getting the national recognition he deserves.
This will be a big season for Takk McKinley, who will likely once again be Atlanta's other primary edge rusher. While his effort on the field is notable and he makes a greater impact on game days than some might realize, the production just hasn't been there to the level the team would expect from the former first-round draft pick. Atlanta drafted Marlon Davidson in the second round and re-signed Tyeler Davison to pair with Grady Jarrett at defensive tackle. The Falcons also have a number of versatile linemen like John Cominsky and Allen Bailey who will be key parts of the rotation.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Aggregate score: 2.4
- Top player: Vita Vea
- Best player: 3
- Drop-off factor: 2
- Returning production: 1
- Consistency: 2
- Depth: 4
With Carolina switching back to a 4-3 defense, the Buccaneers are the only NFC South team that will utilize a 3-4 front as its base look. Because of this, the responsibilities of Tampa Bay's defensive linemen are a bit different from the other units around the division. In a 3-4 front, the down linemen are primarily used as run defenders, and nobody did that better than Tampa Bay in 2019. The Buccaneers allowed the fewest rushing yards per game (73.8) and the fewest rushing yards per attempt (3.3) last season.
All three starters will be back after the Buccaneers re-signed Ndamukong Suh this offseason. He's the biggest name on the defensive line, but nose tackle Vita Vea is the ascendant player of the group. In his second season, Vea recorded 35 tackles, 12 quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks. The 24-year-old is becoming the anchor in the middle of the defensive line. Flanking him on the other side of Suh is William Gholston, who had 38 tackles and five tackles for a loss. The Buccaneers don't have much depth behind their starting three, but Rakeem Nunez-Roches will likely be the player with the biggest rotational role. This defensive line doesn't have many individual stats, but the strength of the unit is very formidable.
New Orleans Saints
Aggregate score: 1.2
- Top player: Cameron Jordan
- Best player: 1
- Drop-off factor: 1
- Returning production: 2
- Consistency: 1
- Depth: 1
As is the case with the Saints on the offensive line, their defensive line is one of the very best in football. Led by Cameron Jordan, who had a career-high 15.5 sacks in 2019 and has recorded double-digit sacks in four of the last five seasons, the Saints have one of the best pass-rush units in the NFL. Marcus Davenport showed moderate signs of improvement in his second season, finishing the year with six sacks and 16 quarterback hits, but he's yet to live up to the level of expectations that came with the Saints trading a good bundle to move up in the first round to select him in the 2018 draft.
The team re-signed David Onyemata to keep the interior of its defensive line intact. Onyemata will rejoin Malcolm Brown as starters at defensive tackle, but they will be bolstered by the young rotation of Shy Tuttle and Sheldon Rankings, giving the Saints serious depth on the interior. The loss of defensive end Noah Spence to injury this offseason isn't ideal for New Orleans, but they still have solid depth off the edge with Mario Edwards and Carl Granderson returning. Draft pick Zack Baun, although primarily slated to play linebacker could be a factor off the edge as well.