Ranking the NFC South defensive ends

We’re going to resume our series of NFC South position rankings with the defensive ends.

This is not exactly a position of strength entering the season, but I think that could change as time goes on. There are a lot of young defensive ends around the division and some of them are bound to rise up as the season goes on. For the moment, though, there aren’t a lot of sure things.

Once again, I’m basing my rankings on talks with coaches, scouts, front-office folks and players. Here we go.

  1. Will Smith, Saints. This is the easiest decision in this bunch because Smith really is the only sure thing among the defensive ends in this division. He’s coming off a big season and still is in his prime. At the moment, it’s safe to say he’s the only pass rusher in this division that really scares people.

  2. John Abraham, Falcons. Let’s make it clear the decision to go with Abraham, who is coming off a disappointing season and not getting any younger, is not a lifetime achievement award. Atlanta coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff could have attempted to get an elite pass rusher if they thought Abraham was through. They chose not to. Abraham’s looked great in camp and there are other folks around the NFC South that think he’s going to bounce back this season and produce double-digit sacks.

  3. Charles Johnson, Panthers. I’m projecting here, but somebody has to step up on Carolina’s defensive line now that Julius Peppers is gone. You’ve heard some preseason hype about some young Carolina pass rushers and we’ll get to them. But Johnson is the guy the Panthers believe is ready to be their most complete defensive end.

  4. Alex Brown, Saints. This guy’s not going to come up and suddenly put up huge numbers, but he’s going to be a nice upgrade over the inconsistent Charles Grant. Look back at Brown’s time with Chicago. His numbers were very steady. He’ll put some heat on the passer from time to time. His sack numbers never have been spectacular, but he disrupts a lot of passes. He’s always going to play the run well.

  5. Kroy Biermann, Falcons. This guy’s getting a lot of hype because he’s had a sack in each of the first three preseason games and Dimitroff and Smith are convinced Biermann’s ready for a breakout season. There are some other talent evaluators around the league that think Biermann doesn’t have all that much upside. But I’m going to take the word of Smith and Dimitroff and trust what I saw out of Biermann in camp and the preseason and give him a high ranking.

  6. Greg Hardy, Panthers. This guy’s been getting tons of preseason hype and some fans are comparing him to Peppers. That’s a stretch. But I’ve been told by the Panthers and people who’ve been watching Hardy from a distance that this guy’s for real -- as long as he can keep focused on football.

  7. Tyler Brayton, Panthers. We’ll twist a common phrase from coach John Fox and say Brayton is what he is. That’s a pretty solid all-around defensive end. In a lot of ways, he’s a lot like New Orleans’ Brown.

  8. Lawrence Sidbury, Falcons. We’ll jump back to projecting here. Sidbury didn’t do much as a rookie, but there are people around the league who think he has a lot more upside than Biermann.

  9. Jimmy Wilkerson, Saints. He’s pretty much in the same category as Brown and Brayton. In fact, Wilkerson probably would be higher on this list if he wasn’t coming off a major knee injury.

  10. Everette Brown, Panthers. Carolina drafted Brown last year thinking he might be the eventual replacement for Peppers and that still could happen. The Panthers believe Brown has lots of upside, but his development has not been rapid.

  11. Chauncey Davis, Falcons. One talent evaluator thinks Davis is enormously underrated. In Atlanta’s defensive-line rotation, where it doesn’t really matter who starts, Davis is going to get a lot of playing time. He’s good against the run and isn’t a bad pass rusher, although his lack of height sometimes keeps him from really disrupting passes.

  12. Stylez G. White, Buccaneers. He’s the best Tampa Bay has right now. The Bucs have tried to light a fire under him in the preseason by publicly questioning his practice efforts. They’re also disappointed he hasn’t stepped forward at all as a leader of a very young defensive line. But White’s never been a great practice player and has been reasonably productive in the regular season.

  13. Jamaal Anderson, Falcons. No doubt this guy has been a huge bust as a defensive end and maybe you can’t even call him a defensive end anymore. He started rotating inside last year and could get even more work at tackle this year. This guy’s not going to give you any pass rush from the outside, but he can play the run.

  14. Kyle Moore, Buccaneers. He seems to have landed the starting spot opposite White. Part of that is because Moore’s been decent, but part of it is because the Bucs have no one else who is ready.

  15. Bobby McCray, Saints. New Orleans let him go after last season and brought him back at a reduced salary. There’s no guarantee he’ll make the regular-season roster. McCray’s a guy that’s supposed to be a pass-rush specialist in a rotation. He ended up starting a lot in place of Grant last year and produced 1.5 sacks. Maybe, in the right situation, McCray can be a pass-rush specialist, but he’s never really lived up to that reputation.

  16. Michael Bennett, Buccaneers. This guy’s unknown and undersized, but he’s had some flashes as a pass rusher in the preseason. He could be used in a rotation as a situational pass rusher. But, keep an eye on how White’s season goes. If White struggles, Bennett could end up starting later in the season as Tampa Bay continues its youth movement.