Ranking the NFC South DBs: Which Panthers are rising up the division?

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As much as Carolina Panthers fans would probably love to see it, no, Jaycee Horn will not be featured on this list. Not yet, anyway.

Perhaps they’ll love to see a few of their other young and talented defensive backs, ones that are a little more proven. So, who are they and where they do rank amongst their peers in the NFC South?

C.J. Gardner-Johnson

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Hey, fun fact about Gardner Johnson: The Panthers could've taken him back in the third round of the 2019 draft when they still had a clear need at safety. But instead, they opted for Will Grier. Nice. He wouldn't drop too far after that, as the Saints scooped him up five spots later. And in his first two seasons, the fourth-round pick has proven to be one hell of a steal. Gardner-Johnson, who sees the majority of his work come from the slot, does a bit of everything. He's a physical instigator who hits hard, who hits efficiently and can hit towards the pocket at a consistent rate. He was also particularly successful in coverage this past season, forcing a 73.1 passer rating on balls thrown his way. Damn, and to think: Carolina could be pairing up this guy and the next guy on this list at the top of their defense for years to come.

Jeremy Chinn

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Here's the next guy. And if we learned anything about him in 2020, it's that he's certainly a guy to keep your eyes on. Chinn's thrilling rookie campaign showed us he could be something quite special. We saw it from the start, when defensive coordinator Phil Snow deployed the 6-foot-3, 220-pound cub all over the field. He lined up as a safety, as a linebacker, out of the slot, on the defensive line and even on the outside in coverage. We saw it during his "Hello, I'm here" moment in Minnesota, where he returned a pair of fumble recoveries on consecutive defensive snaps for two touchdowns. Chinn was the first player do accomplish that feat since 1948. And we saw it all throughout the worthy Defensive Rookie of the Year candidacy, with Chinn cleaning up for what was a sloppy defense suffering from growing pains for much of the season. His 117 combined tackles and countless big plays proved he's a game-changer wherever he lines up. For 2021, it will be back at safety, as indicated by Snow at last month's OTAs. With a little more refinement to his game there's no doubt he'll be on the rise in his sophomore season.

Antoine Winfield Jr.

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Chinn wasn't the only young safety who shined in 2020. The kid who went 19 spots before him last spring, in fact, jumps him for the spot here at No. 6. That rook was Winfield Jr., who had a wide-reaching impact for the Super Bowl champs. For starters, he fulfilled that clean-up role as a safety particularly nicely, grading out higher than any first-year player in run defense (86.3) according to Pro Football Focus. He was also the most valuable rookie defender based off their WAR (wins above replacement) metric. Winfield Jr. did himself nicely in the traditional stats as well. He started all 16 games, posting 94 combined tackles, 3.0 sacks, two forced fumbles, six pass deflections and an interception. Given he is the son of a former (and very good) pro defensive back, the fine instincts, basics and confidence he's already displayed is no surprise. And if you saw him during his days at the University of Minnesota, neither were his playmaking abilities.

Donte Jackson

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The collegiate-to-professional transition is often tougher for cornerbacks than it is for any other position. And there's some proof of that for this former second-rounder, who's experienced some bumps since being drafted in 2018. Jackson hadn't been exactly consistent over much of his first two years in Carolina, biting a bit too often on moves and missing a bit too many tackles in his rookie and sophomore campaigns. But after a strong 2020, we're seeing the athleticism, technique, competitiveness and intelligence all coming together and trending in the right direction. Based off the evaluations over at PFF, Jackson is on the rise. He's gone from forcing a 5.5-percent incompletion rate in 2018, to 8.3 percent in 2019, to 15.3 percent in 2020. He's also clamped down on the overall passer rating allowed, squeezing from a 111.9 in 2019 to a 78.5 in 2020. As the Panthers continue with their rebuild, Jackson has begun to make a case for being a foundational piece for this defense moving forward. If Horn pans out and Jackson keeps improving, Carolina will have itself a dynamic pair of starting corners that offenses won't have fun trying to figure out.

Jamel Dean

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You should be hearing a lot more about Jamel Dean from this season on. It's actually somewhat of a surprise his name hasn't gotten more mentions based on what he's done since entering the league in 2019. According to PFF, the third-rounder out of Auburn University forced 12 incompletions and graded out at a 76.4 two seasons ago, each of which accounted for the highest of any rookie corner. He'd follow that up with an even more notable showing in 2020, marking out at a 90.0 when lined up against wide receivers who carried a grade of at least 80.0—the highest such coverage number in the league. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder has plenty of his career ahead of him to keep on proving these first two campaigns are certainly no fluke. And they probably aren't. Just ask Davante Adams. And Julio Jones. And Tyreek Hill. And Michael Thomas. And DJ Moore.

Marcus Williams

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Unfortunately, the first thing that may come to mind for most folks about Williams is his missed tackle that resulted in the "Minneapolis Miracle." But that's kind of ironic, considering he's been nothing short of a sure thing for the Saints for much of his career. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder is the entire package at safety. He's a takeaway waiting to happen, with 15 forced turnovers in his four seasons, and as efficient a tackler as they come at the position. Williams entered 2020 as the highest-graded defender from the 2017 draft (90.7) by PFF. And while he brought down that three-year average with an overall 79.3 mark (which is still pretty damn good) this past season, he missed only two tackles on 67 tries.

Carlton Davis

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Like his teammate and fellow Auburn cornerback who we saw just two spots ago, Davis has seen plenty thrown on his plate over the past two years. But whatever was thrown on that plate was mostly thrown to the wrong spot, because of how good he's been. Davis has had 197 balls chucked his way since 2019, more than any other defender in the league. He's made the most of those targets, forcing a 17.3-percent incompletion ratethe second-highest of any corner who's had at least 100 attempts fly by his way over that time. His 34 total forced incompletions are also the most since 2019. 23 of those have come in single coverage, which ranks second only to Jaire Alexander's 25 in those situations.

Marshon Lattimore

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Lattimore hasn't been the complete lockdown corner he was early in his career, particularly this past season. However, he's still way too good to relinquish the top spot on this list. The 11th overall selection from 2017 has lived up to the billing of that investment, serving as the star defensive back for a perennial contender in New Orleans. Prior to 2020, he ranked as PFF's second-highest graded corner in man coverage since he turned pro, while picking up three Pro Bowl nods and the 2017 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in the process. Plus, playing corner in this division is worth mentioning again, especially when it's been done at such a high level. Lattimore has had to cross the likes of Evans, Jones, Moore, Calvin Ridley, Chris Godwin and Robby Anderson, just to name a few, many a time. That's quite the menu. 2020 wasn't his year, as his seven touchdowns allowed (the second-most for any corner) was a far cry from his zero touchdowns allowed from his rookie campaign. We're betting on a bounce-back for the talented cover man in what will be his fifth pro season. [vertical-gallery id=638265]

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