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NFC South: Brees headlines QBs to carry weight in division

Leaders come in all types. Some are quiet, some flamboyant, some spiritual, some charismatic. But in the NFL, they all have one thing in common: They are the guys their teammates follow in tough times and rally behind, the guys setting the tone at practice, the first ones there, the last ones to leave. They're the ones who have no fear of game deficits or the two-minute warning, the ones players turn to for direction in trying to achieve the ultimate team goal -- winning on Sundays. This week, identifies the squad leaders of each team.

There might not be a more respected leader in the NFL than Saints quarterback Drew Brees. His devotion to his team, city and craft are envied and the way his teammates trust him is like no other situation in the league.

Let's examine not only the way Brees gets it done, but how two other quarterbacks in the NFC South lead their playoff-hopeful teams and how a standout linebacker tries to keep things together in a season that's unraveling awfully in Carolina.

NFC South squad leaders

Falcons: QB Matt Ryan

When Ryan was drafted with the No. 3 overall pick in 2008, the city and players weren't thrilled. How would he step in for Michael Vick and could he be as productive? It took just a few weeks for Ryan to get his team to buy in and a few months -- thanks to a playoff appearance -- for the QB to have the city wrapped around his finger.

Players responded to Ryan by his second minicamp, when running mainly with the second-team offense, but sometimes with the starters, he showed a command of the system. Players openly expressed that they knew he was the real deal. He wasn't afraid to get in the faces of teammates when they messed up and praise them -- and get them the ball -- when they did their jobs.

The 2008 Offensive Rookie of the Year has also won games in every form and fashion. Though his production dipped in 2009, he's ascending again, as are the Falcons. His progression now has reached the point where he tells coaches things that should be done -- and they listen. Ryan might not have reached Brees' stature with his teammates, but he's close. When he speaks, they listen.

Ryan, publicly, is one of the most corporate, robotic sound bites there is in the league. On the field and in the locker room, he's the epitome of a charismatic leader.

Saints: QB Drew Brees

There is nothing like the moment in the Superdome when Brees makes his way into the center of huddle with hyped-up teammates and delivers the resounding pre-game speech that players can't wait to hear. He's as enthusiastic and tough as they come, but the respect didn't start and won't end because of his passion.

Brees spends more time preparing than anyone in the Saints' building. He is so committed to his craft that players milk him for information and trust every move he makes. They no longer marvel at how the undersized quarterback with the average arm seems to make play after play. They marvel at his ability to meander through every situation as easily as breathing.

Teammates have said his work ethic drives them to be better as does his demand for perfection. They don't want to let him down because he's so exceptional at what he does and he can make them look better. He'll also let them know how he feels, good or bad. Then he'll hold them after practice and go through drills with specific players until they rectify their mistakes.

Brees isn't having the magical type of season that he had in the Saints' Super Bowl year, but he is pressing forward with the faith of his teammates that he will help them turn things around.

Buccaneers: QB Josh Freeman

It would be easy to assume that 14-year veteran cornerback Ronde Barber is the leader of this team because of his experience and sage perspective. However, the Buccaneers are all about Freeman.

Everything has been shaped and built around him -- something coach Raheem Morris isn't shy to admit -- and Freeman has responded. The second-year player is known as the ultimate gym rat, spending his offseason watching film of other quarterbacks and other defenses.

His legion of disciples continues to grow with his repeated knack for leading comeback victories. He has led six fourth-quarter rallies in just 17 starts. Nothing garners quarterbacks more trust than being able to make plays in clutch moments and Freeman is making it a habit. The reason for this is he is incredibly poised and he doesn't make bad decisions. He has just five interceptions after eight games, in which the surprising Buccaneers jumped to a 5-3 record.

Freeman is a low-key guy who is still figuring things out, but Morris said that the on-field comparisons to Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger -- known as a clutch quarterback -- are fair. It could be argued that Freeman is more of a leader, in terms of what he means to his team, already.

Panthers: LB Jon Beason

What's happened with the Panthers has left one of the most competitive teams in the NFL in ruins. Ownership has pared payroll, not brought in needed free agents and left coach John Fox and his staff to operate under lame-duck status.

It's hard to lead when there is only one victory and weekly losses piled on top of the low morale in the building.

Beason has stepped up to take ownership. He's been one of the leaders for years, in part due to his play and because he's not shy about assuming control. In previous seasons, though, quarterback Jake Delhomme and wide receiver Mushin Muhammad were the brightest lights players turned to. They're gone now and Beason is left with a locker room stripped of talent, quarterbacks, experience and optimism.

He's second on the team with 62 tackles after moving to outside linebacker from the middle because of injuries. Now could move back to the middle because of more injuries. Beason hasn't made excuses for what's gone on this season and he's helped quell players from expressing public frustration.

It's not easy to get players to believe when things go so badly, but Beason doesn't mind being entrusted with trying.

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