2013 PFF All-NFC South Team
Our All-Division road show heads to the deep south today as we take in the NFC-South which when you read through the team could lay claim to being able to put together the league’s most talented group from top to bottom. That is especially so on defense where you’ll find not only top tier talents at every level, but players who showed supreme consistency throughout the season.
The Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints dueled for the division title and as a result it’s no surprise to see them take the lion’s share of the nominations in this All-Division team while the Buccaneers add their terrific trio on defense and one player on offense. Just a year removed from falling a step short of a trip to the Super Bowl, the Falcons collapsed to a shocking 4-12 season and are shutout from this squad despite seven players making the team last season.
Quarterback: Drew Brees (NO)
Though Cam Newton made some decisive plays for the Panthers en route to their division title, in terms of consistent production and performance through the air, Brees was in a league of his own in the NFC South this season. A rare blemish on otherwise consistently solid season or better for Brees was his poor display in what proved to be the division decider in rainy conditions in Week 16. From Week 3 to Week 10, Brees had a passing grade of +1.6 or higher in six of seven games.
Running Back: Darren Sproles (NO)
Not a vintage season in the backfield in the NFC South with not a single back topping the 1000 yard mark and DeAngelo Williams leading the division with 201 carries. Getting the nod is the versatile Sproles who combines his ability as a runner with his startling ability as a receiver both out of the backfield and split out of the slot. Only Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte were targeted more times than Sproles this season who forced 15 missed tackles as a receiver.
Fullback: Mike Tolbert (CAR)
Going for full-on versatility in the backfield in this All-NFC South team, Mike Tolbert brings his blend of solid blocking and punishing ball-carrying to the group. He picked up 545 offensive yards this season on 128 touches, crossing the goal-line nine times and not fumbling once.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham (NO)
Thanks to the absence of Rob Gronkowski for much of the season, Graham was in a ‘league of one’ as the best receiving tight end in the NFL. No surprises then that his 1,215 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns see him take an entirely unsurprising spot in the All-NFC South team. Graham also cut down his drops considerably this season, putting only six passes on the ground after putting down 15 a year ago.
Wide Receivers: Marques Colston (NO) and Vincent Jackson (TB)
Physicality in spades for this All-division team at the skill positions with the combination of Jackson working out wide and down the field and Colston adding physicality on short and intermediate routes especially over the middle. Colston fell short of the 1000-yard mark, but with only three drops and bringing in 70.1% of the passes targeted in his direction, he added to his reputation as one of the league’s most efficient targets. Catching only 50% of his targets, Jackson wasn’t quite so efficient but we’re not about to play down his season based upon inaccurate quarterback play. Jackson finished 10th in the league with 431 yards on deep targets.
Left Tackle: Jordan Gross (CAR)
A sixth straight season with a positive overall grade for Gross and not just that but a positive grade as both a run blocker and as a pass protectors in each of the six seasons that we have been grading games at PFF. His +33.3 overall grade this season (including the playoff loss to San Francisco) topped his +25.2 from 2010 as his best single season grade and he only graded negatively three times (-0.1 vs Atlanta; -0.4 at San Francisco; -0.2 vs San Francisco) in a supremely consistent season.
Left Guard: Travelle Wharton (CAR)
From the point he took over the starting gig at left guard for the Panthers in Week 6, Wharton went on a tear earning a positive grade in seven straight starts (+1.4 or above for the first six). After a slight blip against the Bucs he earned a positive grade in four straight games to finish the season, too, ending with a positive grade in both the run and pass games. Like so many Panthers, though, he will look back ruefully on his worst start of the season in the home playoff defeat to San Francisco.
Center: Ryan Kalil (CAR)
A strong season as a run blocker for the Panther who turned in some big games especially in the second half of the season as Carolina went on a tear to collect the NFC South crown. Joining his left tackle and left guard on the All-division line, Kalil only surrendered one sack this season to go with his consistent run blocking.
Right Guard: Jahri Evans (NO)
A rough start to the season as a run blocker saw Evans not really hitting his stride until midseason in an area that is usually his strong suit. His pass protection was the stronger area of his game this year. After letting up eight pressures in the first four games (2 Sk, 1 Ht, 5 Hu), Evans let up only 10 pressures and no sacks (3 Ht, 7 Hu) for the remainder of the regular season.
Right Tackle: Zach Strief (NO)
While his run blocking might not be up there with what you might expect from a right tackle, Strief’s pass protection this season was the epitome of consistency only grading negatively twice — the playoff defeat to Seattle and in St Louis in Week 15 when he was flipped to left tackle mid-game to face off with Robert Quinn. An extremely good rebound season from Strief who graded negatively in five of his last six starts in an injury hit 2012 season.
Defensive Interior: Gerald McCoy (TB) and Star Lotulelei (CAR)
Getting into the real strength of this All-NFC South team, McCoy and Lotulelei offer a staggering, complementary pairing for this defensive line. At the heart of the Panthers’ improvement on defense, Lotulelei was part of a massively improved group of defensive tackles providing stout run defense (+15.0) and adding 23 pressures in the passing game, including four sacks. Joining him is McCoy who was one of our candidates for Defensive Player of the Year. A devastating interior pass rusher, McCoy’s scintillating season notched 80 total pressures (10 Sk, 14 Ht, 56 Hu) to break Geno Atkins’ record for most total pressures by a defensive tackle in the last six years.
Edge Defenders: Greg Hardy (CAR) and Cameron Jordan (NO)
There’s no drop off in talent or performance at the edge of this All-Division team either, with Hardy and Jordan bringing the heat and being far from one dimensional with it. Jordan had a slight slump through playing with an ankle injury, but rebounded through the second half of the season finishing spectacularly (+14.8) in his last four games including the playoffs. Opposite him, Hardy also finished strong collecting 28 pressures (7 Sk, 9 Ht, 12 Hu) in the final three weeks of the regular season. Including their playoff games, these two combined to notch 173 total pressures this season, not a bad pairing off the edge.
Linebackers: Lavonte David (TB), Luke Kuechly (CAR) and Thomas Davis (CAR)
Standards didn’t slip a great deal at linebacker in the NFC South with probably the league’s best all-around linebacker teaming up with the Panthers’ dynamic duo of Kuechly and Davis. David joined teammate McCoy in the reckoning for our DPOY award, earning consistently high grades all season and excelling in pass coverage where he graded negatively only three times all season and never in the final 12 games. Much like David, the Panthers’ pairing made their mark in coverage and in particular with a huge game against the Saints in Week 16.
Cornerbacks: Darrelle Revis (TB) and Keenan Lewis (NO)
Rumors of Darrelle Revis’ decline have been greatly exaggerated. Targeted only 63 times this season, he surrendered completions on only 54% of his targets (34 of 63) and gave up exactly 400 yards in coverage, no-one surrendered fewer yards per coverage snap than Revis this season (0.72) and he was only penalized once. Joining him is Lewis who embraced his role playing on an island in Rob Ryan’s defense and, like Revis, surrendered fewer than 500 yards in total and less than a yard per snap played in coverage (0.89, t-8th in the NFL).
Safeties: Mike Mitchell (CAR) and Kenny Vaccaro (NO)
Previously notable mostly as an “Al Davis pick”, Mitchell had his struggles in run defense but was solid in coverage and was by far the league’s most productive blitzing safety on a per snap basis. On 23 blitzes, Mitchell recorded 11 total pressures converting seven of those into hits (three) and sacks (four), a 63.6% conversion rate. Alongside him, Vaccaro put in a strong rookie season for the Saints both as a run defender (+5.3) and in pass coverage (+2.3). Vaccaro was among the top safeties in the league with seven total pass breakups (1 Int, 6 PD) and his 27 stops were just outside the top 10 safeties in the league (t-14th).
Kicker: Graham Gano (CAR)
One of the league’s best on kickoffs Gano only missed three field goals all season and was a perfect 6-for-6 from 50 yards and beyond.
Punter: Thomas Morstead (NO)
Metronomic consistency from Morstead whose blend of accuracy and hang-time saw him earn a positive punting grade in 15 of 16 regular season games. The one “blip” was a 0.0 grade against the 49ers. He also handled kickoffs extremely well for the Saints.
Return Specialist: Ted Ginn (CAR)
With a longest return of 41 yards (on a punt return) Ginn’s season was all about consistency rather than wowing with the isolated big return.
Special Teamer: Will Herring (NO)
One of the league’s best in kick coverage, Herring totaled 11 special teams tackles with only one miss and one penalty.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben