NFC South: 2011 back to work FYI NFC South

Panthers back-to work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: No team in the NFC South faces a bigger challenge than the Panthers. They’ve got a new head coach (Ron Rivera) and new offensive and defensive systems. They’ve also got a very young team that has yet to work with the coaching staff. Teams with a new head coach are allowed a little extra offseason work, but the Panthers missed out on all of that. They were 2-14 last season, and it already looks like they’ll be playing catch-up throughout training camp and the preseason.

Biggest challenge: The Panthers drafted Cam Newton at No. 1 overall and they sure sounded like they wanted him to be the opening-day starter. That’s still possible, and Newton’s going to get every benefit of the doubt. But he needs to use training camp and the preseason to show he has at least some grasp of the offense before the Panthers will be willing to put him on the field. If Newton’s not ready, the Panthers might have to turn to Jimmy Clausen, who also has no experience in this offensive system. Or they might even have to bring in a veteran to at least start the first few games to buy Newton and Clausen some time.

Where’s Smitty? There have been conflicting reports about whether veteran wide receiver Steve Smith wants to stay with Carolina, the only team he’s ever played for. The ball really is in Smith’s court. The Panthers don’t feel they have to get rid of him, but they don’t want him stuck in a situation where he’s unhappy. It would be understandable if Smith, an intensely competitive guy, wants to go to a more experienced team. Smith’s had months to think about what he wants to do. As soon as it’s possible, he needs to sit down with the Panthers’ brass and let them know what he wants. If he wants to stay, they’ll be thrilled because it would give Newton and Clausen a top-notch receiver. If Smith wants out, the Panthers will try to accommodate him, but they’ll only let him go if they can get something decent in return.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Charles Johnson, linebacker Thomas Davis and linebacker James Anderson.

Saints back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Saints got a lot of media attention during the players-only workouts. This team did as good a job of handling the lockout as any team in the league. The workouts were well attended, and quarterback Drew Brees and linebacker Jonathan Vilma were running the offense and defense, respectively. The coaches weren’t around, but Brees and Vilma have basically been coaches on the field for the past few years, so the Saints probably weren’t getting away with too many mistakes while working on their own. It also helps that the Saints are largely a veteran team. They also have a coaching staff that’s remained mostly in place. The lockout wasn’t ideal for any team, but the Saints are probably in better shape than most as they come out of it.

Biggest challenge: That’s going to come more off the field than on it. General manager Mickey Loomis and the personnel department are going to have some busy days ahead of them. The Saints have a bunch of free agents, and they want to keep some of them. You can bet Loomis, coach Sean Payton and the rest of the staff already have a good idea of whom they want to retain and whom they might want to target in free agency. The Saints aren’t afraid to bring in guys from the outside, and even after filling some holes in the draft, the Saints still may be looking for help at outside linebacker. If they lose some free agents they want to keep, they might have some other holes to quickly address.

The Reggie Bush factor: It’s clear something has to give when it comes to the running back’s future. He’s scheduled to make nearly $12 million in base salary and count $16 million against this year’s salary cap. The Saints can’t afford to let those numbers stay the same. They either have to release Bush or try to sign him to a contract extension that would make this year’s cap figure more manageable. The presence of Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Lynell Hamilton gives the Saints plenty of alternatives at running back.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Safety Darren Sharper, linebacker Scott Shanle, fullback Heath Evans, safety Roman Harper and tight end David Thomas.

Buccaneers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Although he’s only 23, quarterback Josh Freeman further cemented himself as this team’s leader by taking control and organizing the offseason workouts for the Bucs. Freeman’s workouts focused mostly on the offensive skill positions and some offensive linemen. Most of the defensive players did most of their working out on their own. Freeman seemed to strengthen his bond with tight end Kellen Winslow and some of the young receivers, and that should help. But this was the NFL’s youngest team last year, and the lack of offseason time with coaches is going to make for a very challenging training camp.

Biggest challenge: Although the Bucs got a lot of production out of last year’s rookie class, most notably receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount, a lot of players still aren’t deeply versed in the system. Defensive tackles Brian Price and Gerald McCoy, safety Cody Grimm and receiver Arrelious Benn all had their rookie seasons end prematurely because of injuries. All indications are they’ve done a good job getting healthy, but they could have used the offseason time with the coaches to really put them into position to take the next step.

Secondary issues: The Bucs are certain they’ll open camp and the regular season without safety Tanard Jackson. He’s serving a one-year NFL suspension and won’t even be allowed to apply for reinstatement until late September. The team can’t count on Jackson's return, although it would be a nice bonus. There’s nothing certain about cornerback Aqib Talib’s situation. He’s facing an assault charge in Texas and his trial is scheduled for next March. There’s the possibility the Bucs or the NFL could take disciplinary action against a player who’s been suspected for violating the league’s personal-conduct code previously. If the Bucs and the league decide to wait on disciplinary action, it’s possible Talib could open camp with his teammates.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Linebacker Barrett Ruud, running back Cadillac Williams, guard Davin Joseph, defensive end Stylez G. White.

Falcons back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Like New Orleans’ Drew Brees, quarterback Matt Ryan did a good job of organizing and leading players-only workouts. They were well attended, and all indications are that Ryan went out of his way to start building a bond with rookie wide receiver Julio Jones. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton coached the defense in those sessions, and that should help him emerge as more of a leader. Most of the Falcons have been in the same system with largely the same coaching staff for three seasons now. They shouldn’t be as adversely affected by the lack of a regular offseason as many younger teams around the league.

Biggest challenge: Although Mike Mularkey’s still the offensive coordinator, the Falcons have pretty much acknowledged there are going to be some changes to their offense. They still will rely heavily on running back Michael Turner, but they want to make more big plays in the passing game. That’s why they brought Jones in, and the fact he and Ryan have spent some time together certainly helps. But Mularkey lost a lot of time in which he could have been implementing and fine-tuning new plays. Training camp will be a crash course for Jones, but there also will be an accelerated learning curve for Ryan and the other receivers who already were with the Falcons because some of what they’ll be doing will be new to them. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau also might have to quickly overhaul an offensive line that could be featuring as many as three new starters, depending on who leaves in free agency. Keeping right tackle Tyson Clabo is the priority, but the Falcons might not be able to keep guards Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock.

Where’s the pass rush? It’s pretty much a forgone conclusion that the Falcons will target a big-name defensive end in free agency. That’s the one glaring need on this team. The Falcons are looking to complement John Abraham in the short term, but it’s likely they want someone who can be his long-term replacement. Minnesota’s Ray Edwards and Carolina’s Charles Johnson are two defensive ends who are still young but already have been pretty productive. Either one of them could be Atlanta’s top target.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Linebacker Mike Peterson, linebacker Stephen Nicholas, guard Harvey Dahl, guard Justin Blalock, tackle Tyson Clabo and kicker Matt Bryant.

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