The 10 most important players on every NFC South team
- Quarterbacks aside, which players will decide the NFC South this year?
A quality quarterback can carry a team a long way in the NFL, but teams carry 53 players for a reason—QBs can’t do it alone. So, with the draft and the heart of free agency in the rearview mirror, we’re asking the question: Who are the 10 most important non-quarterbacks on each NFL roster?
We polled writers from SI and The MMQB to find some answers. Each writer was assigned to a conference and asked to rank each roster’s most important players, 1 through 10. Those players then were given points consistent with their positioning—a first-place vote was worth 10 points, second-place was worth nine and so on. Then we circled back to hear the writers out when their ballots went against the grain.
The next division up is the NFC South, with the following pollsters weighing in: Jacob Feldman, Emily Kaplan, Jonathan Jones, Eric Single and Jenny Vrentas.
The 10 most important players on the Atlanta Falcons
1. WR Julio Jones (48 points)
2. LB Vic Beasley (33)
3. CB Desmond Trufant (32)
4. RB Devonta Freeman (29)
5. C Alex Mack (28)
6. S Keanu Neal (27)
7. LB Deion Jones (21)
8. DT Dontari Poe (19)
9. T Jake Matthews (17)
10. RB Tevin Coleman (seven)
There was a brief moment, as the first three NFC South ballots landed, that Julio Jones looked headed toward a unanimous No. 1 ranking. The final two voters (Jonathan Jones and Vrentas) broke up the party, placing Alex Mack atop the Falcons’ list. Both ballots had Jones in the No. 2 slot, hence his final 48-point total. Mack did not fare as well elsewhere, settling for a fourth-place vote (Single) and a 10th-place (Kaplan), on top of his No. 1s.
Only so many spots to go around, but count it as a bit against the odds that Keanu Neal and Deion Jones fell outside the top five. Jones secured a No. 2 ranking (Single), but was no higher than fifth on any other ballot; Neal had a No. 3 (Kaplan), not enough on its own to leapfrog him over top of Mack.
Jacob Feldman defends his decision to rank Donari Poe at No. 2: Dan Quinn has a reputation for developing defensive lineman, and Poe might be the most physically talented player he's had a chance to mold. But after a disappointing season in KC, it's unclear if he's the solution to the Falcons' interior d-line problem.
Other Falcons players receiving votes: T Ryan Schraeder (four points), CB Robert Alford (three), WR Mohamed Sanu (three), DT Grady Jarrett (two), DE Ra'Shede Hageman (one), K Matt Bryant (one)
The 10 most important players on the Carolina Panthers
1. LB Luke Kuechly (48 points)
2. DT Kawann Short (36)
3. T Matt Kalil (32)
4. RB Christian McCaffrey (27)
5. LB Thomas Davis (23)
T-6. CB James Bradberry (20)
T-6. TE Greg Olsen (20)
8. WR Kelvin Benjamin (13)
9. LB Shaq Thompson (11)
T-10. DE Julius Peppers (10)
T-10. C Ryan Kalil (10)
For as close as Julio Jones was to a clean sweep of the voting, Luke Kuechly inched past him. The lone ballot with him at No. 2, rather than No. 1 was Feldman’s, which handed the top spot to new left tackle Matt Kalil.
Kalil was one of four different second-place finishers on the ballots with Kuechly up top. The rest: Kawann Short (Kaplan), Christian McCaffrey (Single) and Ryan Kalil (Vrentas). McCaffrey placed in every voter’s top 10—his lowest marks were a pair of ninth-place votes (Vrentas and Jones).
There was very little support shown for McCaffrey’s expected backfield running mate, Jonathan Stewart. The longtime Panther was Jones’s third most-important player, yet failed to claim residence in any other ballot.
Other Panthers receiving votes: WR Jonathan Stewart (eight points), DE Charles Johnson (four), T Daryl Williams (three), CB Captain Munnerlyn (three), T Michael Oher (three), S Mike Adams (two), DT Star Lotulelei (one)
The 10 most important players on the New Orleans Saints
1. DE Cameron Jordan (39 points)
2. WR Michael Thomas (31)
3. CB Marshon Lattimore (27)
4. OT Terron Armstead (23)
T-5. RB Mark Ingram (21)
T-5. DT Sheldon Rankins (21)
T-7. S Kenny Vaccaro (18)
T-7. RB Adrian Peterson (18)
9. G Larry Warford (13)
T-10. OT Ryan Ramczyk (11)
T-10. CB Delvin Breaux (11)
All told, 22 different Saints received votes in our poll, the widest range for any NFC team. In fact, just one player was present on all five ballots: top vote-getter Cameron Jordan, who twice ranked No. 1 (Kaplan and Vrentas).
The three remaining first-place votes belonged to Delvin Breaux (Single), Sheldon Rankins (Feldman) and Michael Thomas (Jones). Breaux only made it on to one other ballot, save for Single’s; Kaplan, Feldman and Jones all excluded him from the top 10.
The backing for the Saints’ second Round 1 pick, OT Ryan Ramczyk, mainly came from Feldman. He had the rookie No. 3 on his list; Kaplan placed Ramczyk at No. 8.
Emily Kaplan defends her second-place vote for Marshon Lattimore: The Saints have had the league’s worst pass defense for four of the past five seasons. Lattimore will be asked to contribute right away, and the No. 11 pick will be expected to perform—after all, he was the top corner in a historically deep draft year for the position.
Other Saints receiving votes: WR Ted Ginn Jr. (nine points); TE Coby Fleener (eight); DE Alex Okafor (six); LB Dannell Ellerbe (five); LB Stephone Anthony, C Max Unger (four); LB Craig Robertson, S Vonn Bell (two); CB P.J. Williams, OT Zach Strief (one).
The 10 most important players on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1. WR Mike Evans (39 points)
T-2. WR DeSean Jackson (38)
T-2. DT Gerald McCoy (38)
4. OT Donovan Smith (35)
5. RB Doug Martin (24)
6. LB Lavonte David (21)
T-7. CB Vernon Hargreaves III (14)
T-7. LB Kwon Alexander (14)
T-9. LB Robert Ayers (13)
T-9. TE O.J. Howard (13)
A first in our polls: a player claiming the top spot for his team without actually being ranked No. 1 by any of the pollsters. The honor belongs to Mike Evans, who topped out with a pair of No. 2 votes (Feldman and Kaplan). He landed third (Vrentas), fourth (Single) and fifth (Jones) on the remaining ballots, and the cumulative points were enough to propel Evans past the three Bucs who did score first-place votes: Donovan Smith (Single and Vrentas), DeSean Jackson (Feldman and Jones), and Gerald McCoy (Kaplan).
Kaplan also handed rookie TE O.J. Howard his best finish, in fifth place. Howard saw his name listed on three of five ballots, but he was behind Evans, Jackson and Doug Martin on all of them.
Eric Single defends his first-place vote for Donovan Smith: Jameis Winston has a wealth of shiny toys, but we won’t be able to throw to any of them from his back. Smith’s first two years at left tackle have been hit or miss—now there will be nowhere else to point to if the Buccaneers’ offense doesn’t start clicking.
Other Buccaneers receiving votes: OL Ali Marpet (10 points); DT Chris Baker (seven); TE Cameron Brate, C Joe Hawley (three); S J.J. Wilcox, K Nick Folk, CB Brent Grimes (one).