NFC South top 25: No. 21

We continue our series of my projected top 25 players in the NFC South for the 2012 season with No. 21:

Jon Beason, linebacker, Carolina

What he did in 2011: After never missing a game in his first four NFL seasons, Beason tore his Achilles tendon in the opener and missed the rest of the season. With defensive tackle Ron Edwards already injured and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis going down shortly after Beason, the Carolina defense fell apart. Despite a brilliant rookie season by quarterback Cam Newton and some big numbers by the offense, the Panthers weren’t able to stop anybody on offense and that was in large part due to the fact they were without their defensive leader.

Why he’s No. 21 in 2012: Beason is expected back at full strength and he’s only 27. I fully expect Beason to get back to where he was before the injuries and that could make him the best middle linebacker in the NFC South. The Panthers did use a first-round pick on Luke Kuechly, who played the middle in college. But all indications are the Panthers plan to go with Beason in the middle and Kuechly on the outside. Just having Beason run the defense should help create order. Throw in his physical skills -- he’s a do-it-all-linebacker -- and Carolina’s defense instantly should be better. Plus, a healthy Edwards should mean Beason should be able to roam free and make plays more often than at any time since the Panthers had Maake Kemoeatu in the middle.