#4 New Orleans Saints
One of the more surprising moves of this offseason was the Saints not focusing on finding a pass-rusher to pair up with Cameron Jordan. Sean Payton said following last season, “It’s a must. We’ve got to find a pass-rusher.” He continued by adding that it could come through the draft or free agency. This leads one to question how much pull Payton has now in player personnel, as the Saints seemingly ignored that advice. New Orleans did not take a pass-rusher until the 103rd pick in the draft and even traded up in the second-round to get a running back. They did not seem too worried about it in free agency either. No major splashes were signed, but a player to keep your eye on is Alex Okafor. The Saints signed him from Arizona this offseason. He had 3.5 sacks last year, but this will be the first season he sees most of the snaps. The Saints finished with 30 sacks last season, good for 27th in the NFL and had an adjusted sack-rate of just 5%. They will be hoping Okafor or another young player can step up and play Robin to Cameron Jordan, but if they do not, or God forbid Jordan were to go down with an injury, the Saints are going to be in serious trouble
#3 Atlanta Falcons
The Saints and Falcons have been aggressively battling for the label “worst pass-rush in the NFL” for quite some time now, but Atlanta finally took a major step in right direction last year. The Falcons overcame their early pass-rushing struggles to finish 16th in sacks with 34, and it all started with All-Pro Vic Beasley Jr.. Beasley broke out his sophomore season after a sluggish rookie year. He led the NFL with 15.5 sacks. It is going to be hard for Beasley to reach those numbers again, but as he enters just his third NFL season, there is still a lot of room for improvement. The Falcons also managed to do what the Saints did not. Atlanta traded up in the first-round to pick the pass-rusher they desired. Takkarist McKinley had the highest pressure rate in the NCAA last season. The passionate Oakland product should have no problem fitting into the culture Dan Quinn has created in Atlanta. Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford were acquired in free agency to help beef up the middle of the line, as depth across the defensive line is something the Falcons will benefit from this season. Quinn continues to add pieces to his young defense, and this group is beginning to look real frightening. There is potential for this Falcons pass rush to be the best in the NFC South this season, but given the uncertainty, they hold the #3 spot for now.
#2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay already had a solid pass rush in 2016, but additions along with player development should have this team near the very top of the league in sacks. This is not a unit that was reliant on one player. It is built on depth and the ability to get after the quarterback from all angles. Robert Ayers and William Gholston combined for 10 sacks on the outside last season. That is not very impressive, however, Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald combined for 10.5 sacks from the middle of the defensive line. Now Tampa Bay adds Chris Baker to the defensive line. He has had 9.5 sacks over the last two seasons. But the player that can push this pass rush over the top though is Noah Spence. Spence was one of the most intriguing prospect’s in the 2016 draft. He slipped to the second-round because of off the field issues that led to his dismissal from Ohio State, but that did not stop him from producing in his rookie season. He had 5.5 sacks last year and was not 100% because of injuries. The Bucs will be looking for him to take a leap in his second season with the team. If he can see the same type of improvement that Vic Beasley saw in his second year, this Tampa Bay pass rush will be the best in the entire NFL.
#1 Carolina Panthers
Right now, the Panthers have the best pass-rush in the NFC South coming off 47 sacks last season. Carolina ranked second in the league behind just Arizona in getting after the quarterback, but like the Bucs, did so in a duty by committee fashion. The Panthers were the only team inside the top-eight in sacks that did not have a player record double-digit sacks. Kawann Short anchors the middle and has 17 sacks combined over his last two seasons. He is one of the best defensive tackles in the league, and the Panthers rewarded him like one this offseason with a 5-year, $80 million deal. Star Lotulelei lines up next to Short as the teams best run stopper, but can also contribute in the pass rush, as he added 4 sacks last season. The outside pass-rush has been a bit of a question mark, as Charles Johnson has only managed to sack the quarterback 5 times in the last two seasons. However, the Panthers have been able to get huge boosts from rotational pass-rushers like Mario Addison, who they also locked up to a contract extension this offseason. Addison recorded a ridiculous 9.5 sacks last season and he was not even a starter. For the icing on the cake, Carolina brought back their future Hall-of-Fame defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers is amazingly entering his 16th season in the league, but has not showed any signs of slowing down. The 37-year old combined for 25 sacks in his three seasons he spent with the Packers. He should solidify what was already the second-best pass-rush in the NFL last season.