Prior to the 2002 season, the NFL realigned its divisions after expanding to 32 teams. In doing so, the Buccaneers, Saints, Panthers and Falcons became divisional opponents.
The new division came out of the gate with a bang, Tampa Bay went on to win the Super Bowl that season. Over the next few years, the division would feature some of the best teams in the league, with Carolina making a Super Bowl run the following season, Atlanta nearly getting there a year later with Michael Vick, the league's most electrifying player, as their quarterback, and New Orleans winning a championship in 2009.
Since then, the NFC South, which at one point was known as one of the strongest top-to-bottom divisions in the NFL, has been largely controlled by the Saints, who have won four of the last nine division titles with an extra wild-card berth in there too.
But 2020 appears to be a changing of the tides or a re-balancing of what was one of the most competitive divisions in the league. It starts in the trenches; all four teams appear to be strong up front, especially on the defensive side.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Projected defensive line contributors: Grady Jarrett, Takk McKinley, Dante Fowler Jr., Marlon Davidson, Alvin Bailey, John Cominsky, Tyeler Davison
The Falcons defensive line is lead by their Pro Bowl player in the middle, Grady Jarrett. When healthy, Jarrett is one of the best defensive tackles in the league. He's surrounded by edge rushers Takk McKinley and Dante Fowler. McKinnley, the former first-round pick, did not start a single game until his second year in the league where he recorded seven sacks. But in 2019 he recorded just three and a half. Fowler comes to Atlanta by way of Los Angeles. He spent the last two seasons with the Rams, where he recorded 11 1/2 sacks in 2019. Fowler will hope to not only replace but upgrade the position previously held by Vic Beasley.
The Falcons selected Auburn defensive lineman Marlon Davidson in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. They're certainly hoping they can get something from him as a versatile lineman who can align as an interior player and edge player. Davison is a strong run-stuffer in the middle where John Cominsky and Alvin Bailey are rotational players to round things out.
3. Carolina Panthers
Projected defensive line contributors: Kawann Short, Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Yetur Gross-Matos, Stephen Weatherly
After finishing 27th in the NFL in sacks (35) in 2018, the Panthers defensive line jumped all the way to second (53) last season. Thanks to the help of players like Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin, Vernon Butler and Gerald McCoy, the Panthers had near league-high success when it came to getting after the passer. But none of those four players are still on the roster for 2020, and as you would expect, that means there are big shoes to fill.
Though the Panthers were strong when attacking the pocket on passing downs, they weren't as strong defending the run. Carolina was one of the worst teams in the league when it came to that area, and that's why they devoted their first pick in the 2020 draft to the middle of their defensive line. The Panthers selecting Derrick Brown out of Auburn.
Brown will certainly be a focal point of the Panthers' defensive line, as will first-round 2019 selection Brian Burns and long-time defensive lineman Kawann Short, who missed all but two games last season. To round things out, Carolina also needs good production from players like Stephen Weatherly, who is coming over via Minnesota, and rookie Yetur Gross-Matos.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected defensive line contributors: Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, Rakeem Nuñez-Roches, Khalil Davis, Anthony Nelson, Pat O'Connor
No one in this division has the Buccaneers beat in terms of talent at their front four. Tampa Bay is returning almost all of its defensive line depth chart from the previous season, which includes the league's sack leader, Shaquil Barrett, who boasted 19 1/2 sacks; Jason Pierre-Paul, who recorded eight 1/2 sacks in just 10 games after a near career-ending car accident, and two near unblockable forces in the middle between Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh.
That's the best front four in the division, but a defensive line has to be deeper, and that's where the Buccaneers might struggle.
Tampa Bay still has long-time defensive lineman William Gholston, who came off one of his best years in 2019. They also have familiar depth pieces in Pat O'Connor and Rakeem Nuñez-Roches. The Buccaneers are also optimistic about their young guns, Khalil Davis and Anthony Nelson can contribute, but those stats would be simply projections.
Overall, this is a strong front four, but the depth will tell the story of how well they really perform week-to-week.
1. New Orleans Saints
Projected defensive line contributors: Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Trey Hendrickson, Carl Granderson, Malcolm Brown, Mario Edwards Jr., Margus Hunt, Shy Tuttle
The Saints not only have one of the most talented defensive lines in the NFL but also one of the deepest. The featured player is Cameron Jordan, who is coming off 2019 tying his career-best in sacks (15 1/2). It was the third consecutive year where Jordan finished the season with double-digit sacks. On the other side of the line will be the talented Marcus Davenport. Davenport has missed quite a few games due to injury over the last few years, but when he’s on the field, he has improved his pass rusher presence. The same can be said for Sheldon Rankins, who is entering a contract year and, when healthy, brings top tier pass rush production from the interior spot.
After re-signing David Onyemata, the Saints decided to run it back with most of what was their defensive line rotation in 2019. Trey Hendrickson, Carl Granderson, Mario Edwards Jr., Malcolm Brown, Shy Tuttle and now adding Margus Hunt make for one of the more experience and deep defensive line rotations in the league.