Over the course of two weeks here at CBSSports.com, we're unveiling our annual preseason All-Division teams. We began last week with the AFC, cycling through the AFC East, AFC North, AFC South, and AFC West. Starting Monday, we began our run through the NFC, beginning with the NFC East and NFC North. We'll continue today with the NFC South (below) before finishing up with the NFC West (Aug. 16). Enjoy.
The NFC South sent three teams to the playoffs in 2017, but they all ultimately ended up going home early. (Note: This post previously mistakenly said the South only sent two teams to the playoffs.) The Saints and Falcons enter 2018 as strong contenders in the NFC, and the Panthers could enter that conversation if their offense takes a step forward under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. The Buccaneers are obviously trailing the rest of these talented teams in the division, and they're likely to fall even further behind while working without Jameis Winston (suspended for a violation of the personal conduct policy) early in the year.
Those top three teams, though, have an interesting distribution of talent. This was an incredibly difficult division to narrow down at a number of positions, starting with the most important one.
Drew Brees, Saints
This spot may have been the single toughest pick in the entire exercise of creating all-division teams. Compelling arguments can be made for three of the NFC South's four quarterbacks. (Matt Ryan and Cam Newton both have MVPs on their mantle and it's not difficult to imagine either or both of them recapturing the magic of their best seasons.) But in terms of the totality of his offensive infrastructure, no NFC South QB is in better position to succeed in 2018 than Brees. He's got an elite No. 1 wide receiver. He's got a strong offensive line. He has two quality running backs, both of whom excel at catching the ball out of the backfield. And he has one of the most creative offensive minds in the league scheming him into easy throws.
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Alvin Kamara, Saints; Devonta Freeman, Falcons
Kamara's efficiency is sure to take a hit in 2018 after he averaged a completely absurd 6.1 yards per carry as a rookie. But he has so much room to regress and still be a fantastic player, especially considering his contributions in the passing game. Not only that, but with Mark Ingram suspended for the first four games of the season, Kamara should dominate the touches early in the year and rack up a ton of yardage.
Ingram missing the season's first four games knocks him out of contention for the second running back spot here, where Freeman gets the nod over Christian McCaffrey due to his strong track record of high-level success at the center of one of the NFL's best offenses. CMC should be better in Year 2 than he was as a rookie, but the leap he'd have to make to leapfrog Freeman is just too large to get him onto this team.
Michael Thomas, Saints; Julio Jones, Falcons; Mike Evans, Buccaneers
Thomas' first two NFL seasons have just been fantastic. He followed up a 92-catch, 1,137-yard rookie season with 104 catches for 1,245 yards as a sophomore. He's Brees' No. 1 read on almost every passing play. He uses his body to box out cornerbacks better than pretty much every receiver in the NFL. He's a wonderful route-runner. And he has absurdly strong hands. He's going to dominate for a long time.
Julio is the most physically imposing receiver in the NFL. He should get some positive touchdown regression in 2018 after being targeted a ton of times in the red zone but finishing his 88-catch, 1,444-yard season with just three scores. The Falcons love to move Jones all over the field to get him the right matchup, and he tests the defense on short, intermediate, and deep routes. Even when playing through various bumps and bruises, as he has over the past few years, he is damn near impossible to stop.
Evans will be without his starting quarterback early in the season and he's never necessarily been the most efficient receiver in the world (his career-high catch rate is just 55.7 percent), but he has also totaled at least 68 catches and 1,001 receiving yards in each of his four NFL seasons. He has terrific size and is as good a jump-ball threat as there is in the NFL, and if he could get some more accurate throws from his QB, he could really explode.
Greg Olsen, Panthers; Cameron Brate, Buccaneers
Olsen was limited to just seven games last year due to injury, but when he's healthy he is as good as any non-Rob Gronkowski tight end in football. From 2012 through 2016, he averaged 77 catches for 969 yards and five touchdowns per season. In pretty much any year, that'd be good enough to be one of the handful of best tight ends in football. He is often the first player Cam Newton looks to at the top of his drop, and with good reason. He stretches the field vertically and can make things happen after the catch.
The tight end position elsewhere in this division is a bit thin. Austin Hooper has talent but has not been a consistent part of the Falcons offense through his two NFL seasons. The same is true of Josh Hill in New Orleans, and now he's got to compete with Benjamin Watson as well. And O.J. Howard has another tight end on his team who is higher in the passing-game pecking order. That's why Brate gets the call here.
Ryan Rammczyk, Saints; Jake Matthews, Falcons
There was a possibility that Ramczyk was going to sit for a year before entering the starting lineup, but due to injuries he ended up playing every single snap last season. He was fantastic from the jump, stonewalling pass-rushers, mauling in front of Ingram, and getting out in space to free Kamara in the open field.
Matthews has blossomed into an excellent blind-side tackle over the course of his career, and the Falcons rewarded him with a handsome contract extension this offseason (5 years, $72.5 million). He never misses games and he's heading into the prime of his career at 26 years old. He's a foundational piece of Atlanta's offense, which is one of the best in football.
Trai Turner, Panthers; Andy Levitre, Falcons
Carolina let its other high-priced guard walk this offseason (Andrew Norwell), and it says a lot about how good Turner is that the Panthers elected to pay him over a player who was named a first team All-Pro last year. Turner is coming off three-straight appearances in the Pro Bowl and there's no reason to expect that his strong play won't continue.
If you want to see how valuable a player Levitre is, go watch what Aaron Donald did to the Falcons' offensive line in the playoff game Levitre missed due to injury.
Alex Mack, Falcons
If it weren't for the existence of Travis Frederick, Mack would be the undisputed holder of the title of Best Center in the NFL. As it is, he's got a damn good argument for that mantle. He is the key to Atlanta's zone-style running game, executing reach blocks with the best of them and demolishing smaller defenders when he gets out into space. His pass-blocking is excellent as well, and he keeps Matt Ryan clean in the center of the pocket to deliver the ball to his cadre of weapons.
Cameron Jordan, Saints; Vic Beasley, Falcons
Jordan is coming off the best season of his career, during which he broke out as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He had 62 tackles and 13 sacks, as well as 11 passes defenses, two forced fumbles, and a pick. He was rewarded with Pro Bowl and first team All-Pro selections for his efforts. With the Saints having added so much defensive talent over the past two seasons, he should not see any drop off in 2018.
Beasley dropped off hard from his fantastic 2016 season as he struggled with injuries and inconsistency a year ago, but the talent that led to his 15-sack season as a sophomore is still there. With Dan Quinn at the controls of Atlanta's defense, he should continue to put Beasley in position to unleash his explosive talents.
Interior Defensive Lineman
Grady Jarrett, Falcons; Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers
Jarrett has been a consistent running-game force on the interior of the Atlanta defense from Day 1, but his development as a pass-rusher has turned him into one of the league's more underrated players. He got to 39 hurries last season, per Pro Football Focus, a very respectable number for a player who is primarily known as a run-defender. If he can continue his progress in that area, he could get some Pro Bowl recognition soon
McCoy has made the Pro Bowl in six straight seasons, racking up at least five sacks from his post in the middle of Tampa's defense in each of those years. He notched six sacks and 26 hurries last season, as well as 15 additional QB hits. He's as consistent a force in the middle as anybody, and he's always on the field -- he's missed just six games combined during his six Pro Bowl campaigns.
Shaq Thompson, Panthers; Lavonte David, Buccaneers
Thompson is primarily known for his elite athleticism, and that's certainly the best thing he brings to the table, but he's gotten better as a run-defender as well. He's not quite as good a player as his more famous linebacker teammates, but with Thomas Davis suspended for four games, he gets slotted into one of the spots here.
David has been a tackle machine throughout his six-year NFL career. He notched 53 defensive stops in 2017, per PFF, and also forced more fumbles (five) than all but one other player in the league. He's improved as a coverage player in recent seasons but he makes his bones as one of the best run defenders in the league.
Deion Jones, Falcons; Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Jones personifies the Falcons' focus on drafting elite athletes for their defense. He built on his strong rookie year by improving in basically every facet of defensive football in 2017, exploding for 138 tackles, 10 passes defensed, a sack, and three interceptions. He's excellent in coverage and his speed allows him to cover so much ground in the run game that he can chase backs down from sideline to sideline.
Kuechly is the NFL's best linebacker.
Marshon Lattimore, Saints; Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, Falcons
Lattimore is coming off one of the better rookie seasons any cornerback has had in recent memory. He not only made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but he was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. He notched five interceptions and 18 passes defensed, emerging as a true shutdown corner pretty much right from the jump. He is ready to move into the inner-circle conversation about the league's best cornerbacks.
Trufant has yet to recapture the magic of his 2015 season but he bounced back with a strong, healthy campaign last year after he was limited to just nine games due to injury in 2016. He had stretches last season where he resembled his 2015 self, and that player is still in there somewhere. Alford has emerged over the past two years as a worthy partner for Trufant, and he's become a terrific all-around corner in his own right.
Marcus Williams, Saints; Keanu Neal, Falcons
It's unfortunate that Williams' rookie season ended with such a blunder, because he really was terrific for the Saints before he made the ill-fated tackle attempt on Stefon Diggs. He started on the back end of the defense right away, and he collected four interceptions and 7 passes defensed, along with 71 tackles in 15 games. The Saints and their fans will never get over the way last season ended, but it doesn't change the outlook for Williams' career.
Neal is a monster hitter and plus run-defender who has the flexibility to bump down into the slot and cover receivers. It's hard to ask for more out of a young safety.
P: Thomas Morstead, Saints; K: Matt Bryant, Falcons; RET: Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
Morstead has averaged at least 47 yards per punt in five of his nine NFL seasons. Bryant has a strong leg that gives him 50-plus-yard range with consistency. McCaffrey may not play quite as big a role as a return man as he did last season, but his strength there makes him the best fit for this spot.