- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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The good news for the New Orleans Saints is they are defending Super Bowl champions. The bad news is that’s not a great spot to be in in the NFC South.
The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl, and the 2003 Carolina Panthers, who lost it, didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. Since the division came into existence in 2002, there has been no such thing as a dynasty in the NFC South. No team has won the division crown in back-to-back seasons.
The Saints, who already have re-written history, will have to do it again if they want to stay on top. But the Atlanta Falcons might not be far behind, the Panthers have enough talent to be dangerous and the Buccaneers almost have to be better than last season.
We’ll find out soon enough if anyone can challenge the Saints. The test begins next week when all four NFC South teams report to training camp.
FOUR BIG QUESTIONS
Falcons: What does John Abraham have left?
For the past couple of years, the 32-year-old defensive end has been one of those guys who doesn’t practice all the time because the Falcons go out of their way to keep him healthy and fresh. That plan isn’t likely to change this season, but the Falcons will be keeping a very close eye on Abraham in camp.
His sack total dipped from 16.5 in 2008 to 5.5 last season. The obvious question is if Abraham is on the last legs of his career. Despite the statistical evidence, the Falcons believe there’s something left. After closely watching film of Abraham from last season, the coaches firmly believe Abraham can get back to double-digit sacks. Part of their thinking is he’ll benefit from improved play from the interior of the defensive line and that Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury are ready to generate pressure from the other side. Recent history has shown the Falcons are willing to make deals late in the preseason (trading for cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Tye Hill) if they feel they have a weakness. But they’re hoping Abraham shows enough in camp to convince them the pass rush will be adequate.
Panthers: What must Matt Moore do to win the starting quarterback job?
A lot of people believe this training camp will be highlighted by a battle between Moore and rookie Jimmy Clausen. That’s not really the case -- or at least not how Carolina’s brass views the situation. The truth is the Panthers are going to camp with every intention of Moore being the starter. He earned that much by playing well at the end of last season.
Coach John Fox isn’t about to open the season with a rookie starting at quarterback. He could turn to Clausen later in the season if things aren’t going well. But the immediate starting job is Moore’s, and the only way he can lose it is to have a disastrous training camp and preseason.
Saints: Are the Saints ready for a return to the “real’’ world?
Rightfully so, the Saints spent a lot of time this offseason celebrating their first Super Bowl title. Great for them and great for their fans. But all that’s about to end. Coach Sean Payton runs what I think is easily the toughest camp in the NFC South, and I don’t anticipate that changing. If anything, camp might be tougher this year.
Payton is an excellent motivator and he’s well aware the Saints now are the jewel on the schedule of every opposing team. The track record of Super Bowl champions in the following season hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years. Payton knows that, and you can bet that message is going to be conveyed to his team. A big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season is because they had such a tough and productive camp.
Buccaneers: Who are the starting wide receivers?
The Bucs truly don’t know the answer to that question right now and that’s not a bad thing. The plan is to throw all the receivers out there in camp, let them compete and see who rises up. A lot of fans were frustrated and puzzled when the Bucs let Antonio Bryant walk in free agency, leaving the team without a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. But the Bucs believe they’re better off without Bryant, who wasn’t all that productive last season and didn’t endear himself to the front office or coaching staff when he made public comments about the coaches and quarterback Josh Freeman that were far from flattering.
The Bucs used early draft picks on Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. It’s likely at least one of them will start right away. Veterans Reggie Brown, Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall will compete for the other job. If both rookies look good in camp, it’s possible they could be the starters because there isn’t much upside with Brown, Clayton or Stovall. Second-year pro Sammie Stroughter also is in the mix. But, ideally, the Bucs would like to use him as the slot receiver.
Falcons: Brian VanGorder. The defensive coordinator has done a nice job of working with the talent he’s had the past two seasons. The Falcons haven’t always had the talent to play the kind of defense coach Mike Smith and Van Gorder want and they’ve gotten by with patchwork. But those days are over. Last year’s top picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, return after missing almost all their rookie seasons with injuries and the Falcons used their top two picks this year on linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters. They also spent a fortune signing cornerback Dunta Robinson. Although questions remain about the pass rush, the Falcons have the talent to play their scheme. That means the defense must take a big step forward.
Panthers: Dwayne Jarrett. A former second-round pick, Jarrett has not had much of an impact. With Muhsin Muhammad retired and Steve Smith expected to miss most of training camp with a broken arm, Jarrett is going to get a very long look in training camp. In a best-case scenario, Jarrett finally reaches his potential and earns the starting wide receiver job across from Smith. For that to happen, Jarrett must show an attention to detail and consistency; both have been lacking from his game. The Panthers drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards early because they’re not sure if Jarrett ever will blossom.
Saints: Darren Sharper. The safety had a brilliant 2009 season. Sharper instantly became a fan favorite, but his lock on the starting job at free safety isn’t nearly as secure as many people think. Sharper is 34 and coming off knee surgery. We don’t even know if he physically will be able to do much during training camp. The Saints have moved Malcolm Jenkins, a first-round pick a year ago, from cornerback to safety. A lot of fans view Sharper as the Drew Brees of the defense, but I’m not so sure the coaching staff ever has seen it that way, and the Saints didn’t break the bank to re-sign Sharper in the offseason. If he’s 100 percent healthy, Sharper could stay in the starting lineup. Anything less and the Saints won’t hesitate to go with Jenkins.
Buccaneers: Ryan Sims. He was a starter with Chris Hovan at defensive tackle the past few years. The Bucs got rid of Hovan as soon as they could after last season. With the team using its top two picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, Sims can’t be feeling too secure. With Roy Miller also in the mix and the Bucs in a full-blown youth movement, Sims needs a strong camp just to secure a roster spot.
Under-the-radar player to keep an eye out for in camp: Clifton Smith, return man/running back, Buccaneers. It may seem like a stretch to call a guy who has been to a Pro Bowl an under-the-radar player, but Smith fits the profile. After missing most of the second half of last season with concussion problems, Smith has sort of been forgotten. That might be a mistake. Smith established himself as a top-notch return man when he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season two years ago and helped ease the colossal mistake in which the Bucs drafted Dexter Jackson in the second round. When the new coaching staff took over last season, there was some talk about getting Smith more involved on offense. That got derailed by his injuries, but the plan could get back on track this year. Cadillac Williams is the main running back in Tampa Bay, but you could start to see Smith get some action as a situational player. With his speed, he could be an explosive receiver out of the backfield and also might be able to handle a few carries a game.
BEST POSITION BATTLE
It’s not an offensive skill position, so it won’t be flashy. But the best position battle in the NFC South will be sorted out in Spartanburg, S.C., as the Carolina Panthers try to figure what to do with their linebackers. This was supposed to be a spot with enormous strength, but an offseason knee injury to Thomas Davis has turned this into a huge question. Davis probably will miss the entire season, throwing the linebacker corps into a state of uncertainty.
The only thing that’s certain is that Jon Beason remains one of the best linebackers in the league and the unquestioned leader of this defense. But the Panthers aren’t even sure where Beason will line up. He has been fantastic in the middle, but he may move to Davis’ spot on the weak side. In what essentially amounts to a game of musical chairs, the Panthers are looking at four linebackers and trying to figure out the strongest starting trio. One reason they’re considering moving Beason is because they believe Dan Connor can be solid in the middle. He’ll get a chance to prove that in camp.
But the Panthers also will be keeping a close eye on outside linebackers Jamar Williams and James Anderson. If they both rise up, Beason could remain in the middle. If Connor rises up and the Panthers aren’t comfortable with Williams and Anderson as their starters on the outside, they won’t hesitate to move Beason.