hen you talk about the best defensive ends in the NFC South, I just gonna say I’m pretty sure I own that title. You want to make a case against it, I’m @camjordan94 on Twitter. Let’s see what you got.
But for the sake of this assignment, I’m going to do myself a favor and put myself at No. 8 here — take myself out of the conversation right off the bat.
Because this division is stacked.
You got Kwon Alexander and Gerald McCoy down in Tampa. The Panthers have Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Mario Addison, Kawann Short and Julius Peppers — the legend, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. You got Deion Jones and Keanu Neal in Atlanta.
Then you come down here to New Orleans and you got myself, Marcus Williams, Marshon Lattimore, Demario Davis — yo, I’m telling you … watch out for Demario, man. He could turn out to be pretty special.
All those guys ballin’ out in this division … and I haven’t even talked about offense yet.
Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Michael Thomas — I could do a 7 Best just with Saints and you wouldn’t be able to argue with it.
Then you got Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Cam Newton, Mike Evans….
Aaaah! There’s too many. I’m just gonna get to the list.
I’ve got a feeling this is gonna get interesting real quick.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire
(7) Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He’s strong and fast, has great size and makes some incredible catches. He can run all the routes, too — he’ll beat you on the intermediate route one play and work you on the deep ball the next. All-around, he’s pretty impressive.
The thing about Mike is….
You know what? I can’t.
I just can’t.
I can’t have a 7 Best list without Julius Peppers on it. So stop the press or whatever and let’s bump Mike Evans off. He can be No. 8.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
(7 — for real this time) Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina Panthers
I need to apologize for doing a disservice to a legend, because this still might be too low for Julius Peppers. He’s the GOAT at his position, as far as I’m concerned. He’s definitely the modern-day GOAT — like, the stuff I’ve seen with my own eyes, in my lifetime?
I’ve never seen a defensive end better than Peppers.
So maybe I don’t own the title of best defensive end in the NFC South.
But I’m O.K. conceding that to Peppers — only Peppers.
This man has 154.5 career sacks, fourth all-time. And I would put money on him catching Kevin Greene this season for third all-time.
Peppers started out in Carolina and balled out. Then somehow the Panthers let the legend walk out the door, and he went to Chicago and balled out. Then he went to Green Bay and balled out. Then he went back to Carolina last season, and everybody on the outside looking in was probably thinking, Aw, that’s a nice story. He’s going back home for one last hoorah. Like he was gonna be a third-down specialist or something, coming off the bench late in his career.
Then he goes crazy and gets 11 sacks and everybody’s like, Oh yeah, I forgot … he’s a LE-GEND!
And he got no love for what he did last season — no Pro Bowl, no All-Pro consideration, nobody talking about him among the best in the game — because people just … expect it.
It’s low-key disrespectful. The amount of greatness this man produces year in and year out is undeniable. Yet people take it for granted.
Not to mention he’s in his 17th season in a sport where the average career is like 3.5 years.
When Julius Peppers came into the league in 2002, I was in the eighth grade and I had just gotten my Jevon Kearse jersey (gotta love The Freak). But I remember watching Peppers play football and basketball at UNC and, being a dual-sport athlete, I was like, Yeah, that’s me right there.
I always wanted to be like Julius Peppers.
I tried to compare myself to him when I made my first Pro Bowl in 2013. I had 21.5 sacks three years into my career, and Peppers was at 118.5 at the time.
I was like, O.K. … only 97 sacks to go!
Now, today, I have 61.5 sacks and Peppers is up to 154.5.
Five years after my first Pro Bowl, and I’m still 93 sacks behind him.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
(6) Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton is a game-changer. He’s electric when he gets going, and his celebrations are overly annoying. He starts rolling and gets a first down and then points toward the end zone, signaling first down like a referee.
And don’t let him score a touchdown, now, because he does his little Superman celebration.
But you gotta give him credit. He’s a big, strong quarterback, and his arm matches that. He has the arm strength to stretch the field and go vertical with it, but also the finesse to drop it to McCaffrey out of the backfield or to his tight end over the linebackers. And him being 6’6″ and 250 pounds or whatever, he can get all Ben Roethlisberger with it and stand in the pocket and take a hit, or he can escape the pass rush and take off. I’ve seen him backpedal out of sacks, spin out of them or just shove guys off. His combination of size and power for a quarterback is ridiculous. Nobody else has it.
And when he gets out of the pocket and starts running … man, you’re in trouble.
In terms of being a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback, Cam Newton is one of the best in the league.
And it’s just so annoying because … he’s a freakin’ Panther. I mean, as deep as the Saints’ rivalry with the Falcons goes, the rivalry with Carolina is pretty strong, too. It’s like that between every team in the division, honestly.
But yeah, I’m pretty sure I’d be O.K. if I never saw that Superman celebration again….
Jeff Roberson/AP Photo
(5) Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints
My dawg, AK.
I gotta tell you, man … these mid-90’s babies are just built differently. Like, I guess I’m one of the older guys on the team now. I’m an ’89 baby. I like my retro stuff — light windbreaker jackets, like the Nike and Reebok ones. I got some old Speedline joints. I rock fanny packs — my fanny packs are dope. Live colors. I got a speaker in one of my fanny packs. If I wanna go retro, I can. I can be overly retro.
But talking about these ’90s babies, everybody’s trying to be different. And by everybody trying to look different, they all just end up … looking the same, you know?
So my dawg AK comes into New Orleans last year, and dude has a septum ring and a nose ring.
Trying to be different, I guess.
I don’t know where I’m going with that. I just think it’s wild how some of these young guys be coming into camp sometimes. But that’s a whole ’nother conversation.
We’re here to talk about why AK is No. 5 on this list — and he should be higher, honestly. I’m just trying to be overly unbiased.
His balance is outstanding. His speed is amazing. He’s extremely patient — which is rare to see with young guys in the league — and he’s very decisive. When he decides to make a move, he makes it quick. He can run people over, but he has this little shifty juke move he throws to get you off balance. It’ll be like he’s running downhill and he’ll give a really subtle juke where he’ll shift his body weight juuuust a little bit right before contact. It’s difficult to explain. Just remember it next time you watch him and maybe you’ll understand. Whatever it is that he does, it makes it tough for a tackler to square him up and get a clean hit on him. He just slides off dudes and finds ways to stay up and stay inbounds.
I saw all this stuff in practice when he first came in last year, and it was pretty impressive. But lots of guys look impressive in shorts and helmets. Especially skill guys.
Then I saw him get released into a game — into the wild — and he was doing the same things he did in practice, and I was like, O.K. That’s our guy.
The dude is a straight baller and a great teammate.
But those nose rings, and that hair, and that style….
I make fun of him all the time.
LOL … ’90s babies, man.
Kelvin Kuo/AP Photo
(4) Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
He can outrun your coverage, outjump your safety and stiff-arm your linebacker. He’s not afraid to go over the middle, but he can blow the top off your defense and really stretch the field. He’s winning every 50/50 ball. With Julio, it’s basically an 80/20 ball. And then he can make special things happen with the ball in his hands.
He only scored three touchdowns last year, so people were talking about how he had a down year. But he still went for 1,400 yards.
That’s a down year?
It’s like with Peppers. People just expect Julio to get 1,000 yards.
Julio is just built to do everything you would ever need a receiver to do. Every facet of his game is on point.
Plus he’s from the draft class of 2011, so I accept him as my draft brethren.
He should be right in the conversation with Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown and A.J. Green for best receiver in the game, in my opinion. He’s definitely one of the best in the NFC South.
There’s only one receiver in our division I’d give the nod to over Julio….
Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire
(3) Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
I love the way Mike plays.
He’s got the attitude of a much bigger receiver. Not that he’s a small guy by any means — he’s a good 6’3″, 212 pounds. But he has this ferociousness about him that you typically see in bigger guys. He’s durable. He doesn’t absorb hits, he delivers them. He actually enjoys blocking. Add that to his ability to go over the top and pull down jump balls and make plays after the catch and you have probably the most complete receiver in the league.
We can talk about his game and his numbers, but that stuff speaks for itself.
I just keep coming back to his attitude, man. He’s a brute. His demeanor is like … he’s going to run through you. Get all his yards the hard way. Earn every one of them.
And he talks like that, too.
When Mike gets going, he’s low-key Steve Smith-esque. He’s like Steve Smith Lite™ when it comes to talking on the field. He abuses guys. He’s just confident in his abilities, and he wants to strike fear in people with more than just his game — which should scare people enough.
I’m proud of him for it sometimes, when he’s out there clapping at everybody and I’m sitting there like, Yeah, go get ’em, Mike!
There was one time his rookie year — I think it was during training camp — when he made an end-zone tug over a safety. And it was a pretty nice safety. (I’ll leave his name out of this … you know, to protect the innocent.) This safety was a ball hawk in his own right, and Mike just went up over him in the end zone and snagged one, and was straight standing over this dude, looking down at him with a stare that said, You ain’t nothin’!
The safety got up and they exchanged some words, and Mike stayed in there. He wasn’t going anywhere.
And remember, Mike is a rookie at this time. He’s been in the league for like five minutes.
I’m looking at him like, He’s not really built like that, is he?
The next day, Mike came out and went right back at the same dude. He was gunning for him.
I love that fierce mentality. You can’t dog Mike. No sir. He’ll come at you to show you what he can do, then come back at you to prove it wasn’t a fluke, then come at you again to just bury you until all you can do is concede that you just can’t hang with him.
Then he’ll come back at you again even harder.
I love that.
Chris Keane/AP Images for Panini
(2) Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
As much as Cam Newton is a game-changer on offense, Luke Kuechly is that guy on the other side of the ball. He’s the heart and soul of that defense.
The crazy thing about Luke is that off the field, he looks like a regular, Levi’s jeans-wearing guy. Like, if you and me were just walking down the street and we ran into Luke Kuechly and you told me he traded stocks, I’d be like, Oh, I can see that. I don’t know … he just looks like that straight arrow, nine-to-five, everyday guy you’d see at LA Fitness on his lunch break getting a workout in.
Then you see him on the football field and he’s got a bloody nose and he’s destroying dudes and you’re like, Oh my God, who is this animal!
He’s freakishly athletic, and he’s smart as hell.
I’ve seen him go strike for strike, audible for audible with Drew Brees, who’s one of the best in the game at pre-snap adjustments. But Luke is over there adjusting the entire defense, shifting guys around and putting everybody in exactly the right place. It’s like, Drew checks out of a play, and Luke checks into a different defense. Drew will identify the Mike linebacker, and Luke will switch up the alignment so Drew has to re-identify the Mike. The back-and-forth takes up the whole play clock, and that’s not something you see a lot of guys do against Drew.
It’s pretty impressive.
I have to give kudos to Thomas Davis for that, because he does the same thing when he’s on the field. Luke is pretty amazing at adjusting pre-snap, but he also had a hell of a teacher in TD.
Nothing but respect for those two guys.
Ric Tapia via AP
(1) Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
Nine times in NFL history has a quarterback has thrown for 5,000 yards in a season.
Drew has five of them.
He’s the king of the air.
There’s nothing this man can’t do.
People always talk about Tom Brady and his low-key competitiveness. Well I’ve never seen anybody as competitive as Drew. At 39 years old, he still gets pissed off in practice when things don’t go right. Little things, too. Like he’ll throw a pass, and I’ll be watching thinking, Solid ball right there. And then Drew will let out his patented, “Nope! Don’t like it!” And he’ll run the play back and make the throw again until he gets it right.
Until it’s perfect.
And you can talk about him being undersized all you want. But he’s tougher and much more elusive than people give him credit for. Just a couple of weeks ago Jason Pierre-Paul had him squared up, dead to rights, and Drew just sort of shifted his body a little bit — a little Alvin Kamara shift of the body weight, like a half-duck — and I had the privilege of having a front-row seat to watch JPP whiff. It was beautiful.
Drew is able to do all this at 39 years old because he takes incredible care of his body. He’s always the first dude in the gym.
Every now and then the defense and I will make fun of him because he’ll be in the gym by himself doing maintenance work — I call it “quarterback aerobics.” He’s like warming up his arms, doing arm circles and some kind of movements that mobilize his core, and all the D-linemen will walk in and start mimicking his movements.
You ever seen a D-lineman try to mobilize his core?
But we mess with him because we love him. Drew doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He should be in the GOAT conversation with Tom Brady, in my eyes.
You know, had my dawg Mark Ingram been in better circumstances right now, he would have been on this list — probably at No. 7. He’s only 734 yards away from breaking Deuce McAllister’s franchise rushing record. That’s huge. He’ll break that this year. He’s another one of my Draft Class of ’11 brethren. And as soon as he gets back, it’s on.
You know what I just realized?
I only had two defensive players in my 7 Best.
That’s just … hurtful.
Yo, you know what else I just realized?
I bumped Mike Evans to put Julius Peppers at No. 7.
That makes Mike No. 8.
Which bounces me to No. 9.
On my own list.