The NFC South looks to be tremendously competitive in 2014. From theBuccaneers going back to their Tampa 2 roots, to the Panthers fielding one of the best front sevens in football, to the Falcons shoring up their roster and retaining key pieces after an injury plagued 2013, from top to bottom it looks like it will be a dogfight from Day One when the Saints travel to Atlanta.
Each team has low talent, average talent, high talent, and "how the hell did he do that?" talent. As we all know from 11 years of heartache, the NFC South is an incredibly difficult division to win. So difficult, in fact, no team has done it in consecutive years. There is seemingly always a dark horse team coming up from behind to take the crown, and going into every season the question is: who will it be now? In 2013 it was Luke Kuechley and the upstart Panthers, in 2012 it was Julio Jones realizing his full Super Saiyan potential, and in 2011 it was our own Saints led by the old 2009 gang.
Carolina Panthers: Greg Hardy
This one is most the difficult to pick out of the division, just due to the sheer depth of talent on the Panthers front seven. I could make a case for Luke Kuechly, Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, or even Thomas Davis to be the best on a unit that, collectively, could well be the best in football. However, after seeing what Greg Hardy did in 2013, namely during Weeks 16 & 17 against the Saints and Falcons, respectively, it’s impossible to not take him seriously.
It’s harder to quantify what it is that makes Hardy so good, as defensive line play is mired in significantly more subtlety than other positions. His numbers aren’t eye-popping, 61 tackles in 2012 and 59 in 2013, along with no more than 40 in the two years prior to 2012. However, there’s something about Hardy’s game that keeps opposing fans on edge when he’s in. Quarterbacks getting hit, in today’s league, are a lot like shooting stars. It’s not that rare of a thing to have happen, but it’s pretty easy to freak out when it does.
Hardy has actually been in the league since 2010, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he showed glimpses of how good he actually is. In 2013, he took that game and honed it down to the pass rushing machine that we now see. In Week 16, his second matchup against the Saints, Hardy entered with 8 sacks total. He would finish the season with 15. That’s seven sacks over the course of two weeks, 3 against New Orleans, and 4 against the Atlanta Falcons in another Panther victory.
These numbers can be taken with a grain of salt, due to the fact that his game against the Saints was against a rookie LT making his first appearance and his game against the Falcons was against a Falcons offensive lineman, but the fact is that the great ones exploit mismatches. Calling Hardy great now may be jumping the gun, but he is stronger, faster, and smarter than all but maybe five or six defensive ends in the NFL.
In the passing game, Hardy truly is one of the best. He had 15 sacks and 82 total pressures in 2013, which was good for 4th among all players in the NFL. Where Hardy rarely gets the credit that he deserves is in the running game. Back in 2012, considered to be his breakout year, Hardy recorded 49 stops on 60 plays to his end. That’s a stop percentage of 82%. In 2013, his stop percentage hovered around 89-90%, which was good for 4th. Having a player that is the 4th best in the league in both pressuring the quarterback and maintaining his side is a pretty huge luxury for a team whose line is already an embarrassment of riches. Hardy also played 536 snaps against the pass in 2013, the most among any 4-3 edge rusher.
The fact that he is only getting better makes Hardy even scarier. If his career looks anything like his seasonal play, NFC South quarterbacks have a lot to worry about. As the season drags on, Hardy actually improves his statistics, a direct inverse to the trend of defensive ends seeing their numbers suffer as the year wanes. Furthermore, in every single year of his young career, Hardy has gotten better. He had a slight hiccup in his sophomore season, his first as a full-time player, but in his third and fourth years Hardy came back with a vengeance. It has gotten rarer and rarer to find a player that can get 10-15 sacks a season due to rotations, quarterbacks getting the ball out of their hands quicker, match-ups and any number of variables. But Hardy has given the Panthers a guy that can consistently reach the quarterback and free up the other tremendous talents on his line.
As for the real reason that Hardy scares me so much? I don’t like seeing Brees get hit. It’s a scary thing when your quarterback goes down, and Hardy has the potential to bring him down an awful lot. With his combination of size and speed, Hardy has the makings of a top defensive end, which is not something that you want in your division. Despite his legal troubles this offseason, Hardy will be on the field at some point in 2013. And any time that he is on the field, no quarterback is safe. After his showing last year, that seems to go double for NFC South QBs.