Official team photos of the New Orleans Saints vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers game on Sunday, December 28, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)
- No one is referring to Texans defensive end J.J. Wattas the best defensive end in the league, or even the best defensive player. Instead, the debate is whether Watt is the best player in the NFL, period. And last year he presented a fairly convincing case – 20.5 sacks (he's the only player in league history with two 20-plus sack seasons), 78 tackles, four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, an interception, two defensive touchdowns, 10 passes defensed and 15 tackles for loss en route to being named Defensive Player of the Year Award for the second time in four seasons. And he also caught three touchdowns during spot duty at tight end. The Texans move Watt along the line of scrimmage – he was first-team All-Pro as defensive end and was second-team All-Pro as defensive tackle last year – so he's difficult to account for. Rest assured that he'll have the Saints' attention, as he does with every other team Houston faces.
- As great as Watt is, if he played defensive tackle full-time, he'd have competition from Gerald McCoyas the best player at that position. Tampa Bay's sixth-year pro is a destructive force inside – 35 tackles, 8.5 sacks, three passes defensed and a forced fumble in 13 games last season, and 50 tackles, 9.5 sacks and four passes defensed in 2013. He's a three-time, first-team All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowler, and there isn't a single offense that plays against the Buccaneers that doesn't track his movements. He's a guy the Saints will have to deal with twice as a division opponent, which means he's twice the headache for New Orleans.
- I'll take a liberty at No. 3 but since it's my list, I get to do that kind of thing. I'm going with a Carolina Panthers' duo, defensive end Charles Johnsonand defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, because they're double trouble along the line. Johnson has played well with or without Greg Hardyplaying the opposite defensive end, and he'll have to do so again now that Hardy is a Dallas Cowboy. In the last three seasons, Johnson has a total of 32 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, six passes defensed and three fumble recoveries as an edge disrupter. He and his teammates are free to do much of their damage because of the attention that Lotulelei commands inside. His numbers aren't eye-popping (26 tackles and two sacks last season, 42 tackles and three sacks in 2013), but he's a load that can gum up the middle. And, yes, the Saints are scheduled to see this duo twice this season.
- Four Lions defensive linemen produced five or more sacks last season as Detroit made Ford Field a real homefield advantage. NdamukongSuh, the team's top sacker (8.5) and one of the best defensive tackles in the league, exited as a free agent. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, a free agent pickup from Baltimore, won't be producing 8.5 sacks. But he's going to make life easier for the rest of his defense because Ngata, a five-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler, is one of the best run stuffers in the game, if not the best. Detroit was one of the best run-defense teams in the league last year, and the addition of the 10-year vet isn't going to make the Lions worse against the run.
5. Greg Hardy would be higher on this list if his status was more certain. As of now, the former Panther/current Cowboys defensive end is scheduled to miss the first four games of the season due to his league suspension, which would have him sidelined for the Saints game. He appealed the suspension and if it's reduced by a single game, he'll be on the field against New Orleans. The Saints are quite familiar with how much of a force Hardy can be – he missed 15 games last season while being on the commissioner's exempt list, essentially a season-long suspension with pay – because the former Panther had 15 sacks in 2013 and 11 in 2012. If he's eligible to play, he'll be a problem.