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Thursday, July 23, 2009
NFC South training camp preview

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Atlanta Falcons
Training camp site: Flowery Branch, Ga.

Campfires: The offense is pretty much set with last year's starters virtually intact and the addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez. That's going to put the focus of camp on a defense that overachieved last year and will have five new starters.

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Schedule: Training camp dates

The hottest battles will be in the secondary, where the Falcons have to replace safety Lawyer Milloy and cornerback Domonique Foxworth. Atlanta's coaching staff is hoping second-round pick William Moore can step in and start at safety, but second-year pro Thomas DeCoud provides a decent fallback option if Moore's not ready. DeCoud had a strong showing throughout the offseason and isn't going to give up the job without a fight.

Cornerback might be the most intriguing spot to watch in camp. The Falcons are set with Chris Houston on one side, but it's a wide-open competition for the other starting spot and the nickelback job. The plan is to throw Brent Grimes, Von Hutchins, Chevis Jackson and rookies Christopher Owens and William Middleton out there and see who rises up. Keep an eye on Jackson, who came on strong in the second half of his rookie season last year.

Camp will be a downer if ... there are any injuries on the offensive line. The Falcons have a starting five that probably played over its head last year and very little depth. Veteran Todd Weiner retired after last season and the Falcons tried to replace the flexibility he gave them by signing veteran Jeremy Newberry. But Newberry retired earlier this week because of knee problems.

 
  Paul Abell/Getty Images
  Tony Gonzalez gives quarterback Matt Ryan another target in the Falcons' passing game.

Coach Mike Smith is very good at mixing up the tempo of his practices, but he may have to be more cautious with his offensive line. Left tackle Sam Baker had back problems last year and center Todd McClure has wear and tear on his 32-year-old body. If some young linemen don't step up -- and there aren't many likely candidates -- the Falcons may have to keep an eye on the waiver wire for some depth.

Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Matt Ryan masters the offense he looked so good in as a rookie. That's a strong possibility. Although he already was very good, Ryan looked noticeably better in minicamp practices in the spring.

The Falcons didn't hold back much of the playbook from Ryan last season, but they're going to expand it significantly this year. The addition of Gonzalez suddenly gives the Falcons the pass-catching tight end they lacked last year. That should only help receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, who blossomed with Ryan last year. And don't forget second-year receiver Harry Douglas. He showed some promise last year, but looked ready to take on a bigger role in offseason workouts.

The Norwood factor: One player to keep an eye on in camp and preseason games is running back Jerious Norwood. The Falcons realize they put a very heavy load on starter Michael Turner last season and they don't want him approaching 375 carries again. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has to find a way to give Norwood some of Turner's carries. That's not as simple as just swapping them out. Turner is a
power runner and Norwood is a speed guy. The Falcons need to put in some wrinkles to take advantage of Norwood's skills.


Carolina Panthers
Training camp site: Spartanburg, S.C.

Campfires: The Panthers are returning 21 of 22 starters from a team that went 12-4. But the disastrous playoff loss to Arizona means that Carolina can't be complacent. Coach John Fox never has been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons and he needs to if he wants to stay off the proverbial "hot seat."

 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Jake Delhomme and the Panthers need to put last season's playoff loss to Arizona behind them.

Fox needs to revitalize a defense that collapsed down the stretch last season and much of that responsibility will fall to new coordinator Ron Meeks. Barring injury or upset, the only new starter will be cornerback Richard Marshall, who will replace Ken Lucas. A lot of fans are wondering if Marshall is ready to be a starter. The coaching staff wouldn't have let Lucas go if Marshall wasn't ready. He's been a very good nickelback the past couple of years and should do fine opposite Chris Gamble.

The bigger question might be who's going to replace Marshall at nickelback? The Panthers seem to have rookie Sherrod Martin ticketed for that spot. That may seem a little risky, but Fox has a pretty good track record when it comes to playing rookie cornerbacks quickly. Marshall and Ricky Manning Jr. were able to step in and contribute as rookies.

Camp will be a downer if ... Steve Smith pulls a repeat of last year. Early in camp, Smith punched out Lucas, who was kneeling on the sideline. That led to a two-game suspension for Smith. The incident may have helped pull the team together in some ways, but the Panthers can't endure something like that again.

Things tend to get hot in Spartanburg, but Fox and his staff need to keep the ultra-competitive Smith cool. Smith's nasty streak is a big part of what makes him such a great receiver. But he needs to save that for the regular season and let the team get through camp peacefully.

Camp will be a success if ... the Panthers can put the Arizona playoff loss behind them. Losing badly at home was a terrible end to what had been a very nice season, and Fox has to eliminate any hangover from that. One of Fox's strengths is his ability to motivate and he's got to convince this team it can win big games when it matters most.

Fox has been adamant about sticking with quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had a disastrous outing against Arizona. That's a strong show of confidence from the coach. But Fox may have to spend part of camp convincing the rest of the team that the move is a result of confidence and not stubbornness.

It starts up front: Early in Fox's tenure, his defensive line was dominant and the team was built around the front four. That hasn't been the case in recent years. The back seven is very good, but it can become great with more production up front.

Although end Julius Peppers is the only big name on the line, the Panthers have the ingredients to be good up front. They didn't draft Everette Brown to spend his rookie season on the bench. He'll join in a rotation with Peppers, Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton. If Peppers can play at a level close to his $17 million franchise tag, there could be a lot of sack opportunities for Brown, Johnson and Brayton.


New Orleans Saints
Training camp site: Metairie, La.

Campfires: As far as pure numbers, the Saints have the most legitimate position battles in the NFC South. That competition should be a good thing for a team that underachieved, particularly on defense, last season.

General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton did a nice job of creating competition with a bunch of offseason moves geared at making the defense better. Last year's biggest problem area was in the secondary and that's where the best camp battles will be. The Saints paid free-agent cornerback Jabari Greer big money and that probably makes him a starter.

 
  Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire
  Rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will battle for one of the starting cornerback spots.

But the battle for the other starting cornerback spot should be intense. The Saints used their first-round pick on Malcolm Jenkins, who probably has the most physical talent of any rookie on the roster. But Jenkins truly will have to earn the starting job because the Saints think very highly of Tracy Porter, who got off to a strong start before suffering an injury in his rookie season. Porter brings a high level of confidence and he's not going to give up a starting spot very easily. If the Saints open the season with Jenkins as their nickelback, they'll have far more depth than they've had in recent years.

Camp will be a downer if ... it's anything like last season. A rash of injuries started in last year's training camp and the plague continued through the regular season. That was a major reason why the Saints missed the playoffs. Even with added depth, they can't endure another season like last year. Payton ran the NFC South's most-intense camp last season and he may have learned from it.

The Saints have moved their camp back to their practice facility and a look at their schedule shows a large amount of afternoon practices in the indoor facility. There also are a fair amount of days where the Saints will practice only once. That should help keep the team fresh and cut down on the injuries. That's hugely important for a team that will open the season without s
tarting defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, who are suspended for the first four games.

Camp will be a success if ... Gregg Williams' defensive system takes hold quickly. Coordinator Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season's defensive failures and the Saints went out and spent big money to bring in Williams. Once viewed as one of the league's top defensive minds, Williams is looking for redemption after recent struggles in Jacksonville and Washington.

There will be some changes in the defensive scheme. But, more importantly, he'll be trying to install a mindset. Williams is known for having high-motor, aggressive defenses. The Saints haven't had anything that resembled that throughout Payton's tenure. There is plenty of talent in place and the defense showed signs it was developing an aggressive attitude in minicamp. If that continues, the Saints could have the one thing that's separated them from the playoffs the past two seasons.

Who will run the ball? That remains a huge question for a team whose passing game is pretty close to perfect. Payton's not going to take the ball out of the hands of quarterback Drew Brees, but the coach has made it clear he wants to develop a running game that's more consistent than last season.

With Deuce McAllister gone, the Saints have made it clear they plan to go with the tandem of Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Payton will use camp and the preseason games to experiment with their roles and try to put Bush and Thomas in spots that play to their strengths.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Training camp site: Tampa, Fla.

Campfires: Fans are going to need rosters for this training camp. Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Jeff Garcia and Warrick Dunn are gone. Tampa Bay's youth movement, which starts with new coach Raheem Morris, is in full swing as the Bucs truly look for a new identity.

Starting jobs are open all over the place, particularly on defense. The Bucs have moved safety Jermaine Phillips to Brooks' old spot at weakside linebacker and are putting Sabby Piscitelli in Phillips' old spot. If either of those moves fail, the Bucs could always move Phillips back to safety, but the team is planning on this switch working out. It better because the Bucs have plenty of other questions elsewhere. Is veteran cornerback Ronde Barber still capable of playing at a high level? Is defensive end Gaines Adams finally ready to play up to his potential?

 
  J. Meric/Getty Images
  Play him or sit him? That's the decision the Bucs face regarding rookie quarterback Josh Freeman.

But the biggest question of all -- and the one most fans will be watching -- is at quarterback. Tampa Bay used its first-round pick on Josh Freeman and Morris already has dubbed him as the franchise quarterback. The Bucs initially threw out all sorts of hints that Freeman, who left college a year early, would sit as a rookie. But he came on faster than expected in minicamp and that could change the thinking. The Bucs probably will enter the preseason looking to start either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich. But it's not out of the question that Freeman could outshine both veterans. If that happens, the Bucs would have to speed up their plan.

Camp will be a downer if ... none of the quarterbacks steps forward. The rest of the offense is pretty solid, but this team won't go anywhere without a quarterback who can make the passing game work. There are reasons why McCown has never been a true starter and why Leftwich has gone from being a franchise quarterback in Jacksonville to being just a guy.

McCown has enough athleticism to make you believe there's upside, and Leftwich still throws the ball very nicely at times. But nothing is certain with either of these guys. If Freeman plays like a rookie in camp, the Bucs may have to settle on a quarterback by attrition. That's not a great situation because if McCown or Leftwich starts slowly, fans will be screaming for Freeman before he's ready.

Camp will be a success if ... the new schemes catch on. The Bucs aren't going to look anything like Jon Gruden's Bucs. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski is installing a power running game and a vertical passing game. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates is going away from the famed Tampa 2 defense and going with a system that relies heavily on pressure from up front.

The Bucs are young in a lot of ways, but they'll need new leaders like Barrett Ruud, Derrick Ward, Kellen Winslow and Antonio Bryant to step up and lead this team through the transition process.

Whatever happened to Michael Clayton? After a brilliant rookie year, the wide receiver spent the past few seasons buried in Gruden's doghouse. A lot of people were stunned when the new regime handed Clayton a big contract, instead of letting him walk as a free agent. There's a reason for that.

The new regime believes Clayton can be a productive starter. Forget all the talk about what a good blocker Clayton is in the running game. Sure, that will help. But Clayton isn't getting big money just to block. He got paid because Morris, general manager Mark Dominik and Jagodzinski think he can be a solid No. 2 receiver.

Trey Wingo, Cris Carter and Marcellus Wiley preview the NFC South.