Starting Monday, we'll be counting down my list of the top 25 NFC South players for 2012. We'll roll out one player each week day and that will help carry us up to the time when things get busy again just before training camp.
Over the next few weeks, you’ll see who made the top 25. But let me take this opportunity to tell you who will not be on the list. When I first started the project, I jotted down the name of every player I thought had any shot at the top 25. That first list contained 45 names, so I began cutting it down.
In the first round of cuts, New Orleans safety Roman Harper, Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant, New Orleans punter, Thomas Morstead, Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, Tampa Bay left tackle Donald Penn, Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson, Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber and Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel came off the list. If this had been based on lifetime achievement, Barber and Samuel easily would have made the team. But this is based on how I think players will perform in 2012. Barber and Samuel still will be productive, but they’re nearing the ends of their careers. Robinson hasn’t been special since joining the Falcons and there’s nothing special about Harper. Olsen’s a good tight end, but he’s not the best in the NFC South. Bryant and Morstead are very good at what they do, but after looking at my initial list, I decided not to include punters and kickers on the final list.
After that, I still had 11 players to trim and that wasn’t easy. I went back and forth on a pair of rookies -- Tampa Bay safety Mark Barron and Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly -- that I think have a chance to make instant impacts. But, ultimately, I left them off and there will be no rookies on this team. Let’s see them on the field before we anoint them. Also not making the final cut were Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez, Carolina left tackle Jordan Gross and Atlanta defensive end John Abraham. They fall into the same category as Barber and Samuel. They’ve been great players, but they’re on the downside of their careers. I wanted to get a defensive tackle on this team, but in the end, that didn't happen. Atlanta’s Corey Peters and Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy got consideration, but I didn’t see either as a top-25 player.
Guard was a tough position and New Orleans’ Ben Grubbs and Tampa Bay's Davin Joseph came very close to making the team. But they didn’t because they’re not on the same level as the two guards that made the team. The final cut was Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble. That was a very difficult call because you can certainly make a case that Gamble belongs in the top 25. But he just missed out on this list.