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NFC South Q&A: Will Panthers rebound to be division's best defense?

The NFC South produced two of the top offenses in the league last season in the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. There also were a lot of defensive upgrades made this offseason in the division. Who will be the NFC South’s top defense in 2017 and why? Members of our NFC South roundtable weigh in:

David Newton, Panthers reporter: The Panthers, as bad as they were last season, still had the best defense in the division. They didn’t finish in the top 10 in the league, as they had the past four seasons, but their 21st ranking in total defense still was better than those of the other three teams. Losing middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (concussion) for six games and having to start two rookie cornerbacks after rescinding the franchise tag of Pro Bowler Josh Norman was a big reason for that slump. With Kuechly back and corners James Bradberry and Daryl Worley having a season worth of experience, plus the additions of nine-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers and nickelback Captain Munnerlyn in free agency, this unit should return to top-10 form. Maybe even top-five, as it was in 2013. I can’t say that about any other defense in the division. Most of Carolina’s trouble last season came in the secondary, and most of that was early during a 1-5 start (see Julio Jones’ 300-yard receiving game). The front seven remains among the strongest in the NFL, particularly up the middle with tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, plus Kuechly behind them. Peppers, even at 37, still can be a disruptive force for quarterbacks. Even with their issues on the back end, the Panthers finished second in the NFL with 47 sacks last season. Munnerlyn gives the nickel position stability that hasn’t been there since he left after the 2013 season. The addition of Mike Adams at strong safety allows Kurt Coleman to return to his natural free safety spot, where he led the team in picks with seven in 2015. There just aren’t the questions on this unit as there are with the other South defenses. To me, this is almost a no-brainer.

Vaughn McClure, Falcons reporter: All four of the division’s defenses finished 21st or lower in total defense last season, and three of the four -- the Falcons, Saints and Panthers -- surrendered 25 points per game. The Falcons were able to compensate for their defensive woes and make it all the way to the Super Bowl by riding an offense that averaged a league-best 33.8 points per game. But Falcons coach Dan Quinn knows he can’t put that burden on the offense every week, which is why he upgraded the defense with players such as two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe and rookie linebacker Duke Riley. But ex-Falcons coach Mike Smith, now the defensive coordinator in Tampa, made great strides with the Buccaneers last season and has them in position to be the division’s top defense. Progress should continue, especially behind guys such as Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, and second-year players Noah Spence and Vernon Hargreaves. The Buccaneers did something right in boasting the league’s best third-down defense a year ago. Now they have to keep opponents out of the end zone and improve a red zone defense that finished 25th last season.

Mike Triplett, Saints reporter: A good case could be made for the Bucs, who led the division in scoring defense and takeaways last year. Or for the rising young Atlanta defense, which drafted pass-rusher Takkarist McKinley in Round 1 after having so much success with rookies over the past two years. But I’ll stick with the Panthers, who have led the NFC South in yards allowed for each of the past five years. No team in the NFC South really added one huge game-changing defensive player in free agency. But Carolina will be getting one back this season, with Kuechly returning from the concussion that cut his season short last year. The Panthers’ front seven still is awfully imposing, led by Kuechly, linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Short, among others. But Carolina needs to get a lot better in the secondary, where it struggled to make up for the loss of cornerback Norman last year.