NFC South: 2012 camp watch

Saints Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
12:18
PM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I’m certain of: The New Orleans Saints will be coming to camp on a mission. They are not happy about what happened this offseason and have taken on the mindset that the world is against them. That's going to lead to an increased focus across the board, which is not a bad thing.

This team will miss suspended coach Sean Payton, but the Saints have strong veteran leadership. Quarterback Drew Brees has spent his career playing with a chip on his shoulder. Recently becoming the NFL's highest-paid player, he'll be out to show the world he deserves it. This team always has fed off Brees' work ethic and leadership. That's going to be needed more than ever.

One thing that might happen: There's a decent chance the Saints will add a pass-rusher at some point in the preseason. They're putting in a defense, with new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, that will rely on the front four more than ever. Aside from Will Smith, who is suspended for the first four games, the Saints do not have a proven pass-rusher among their crop of defensive linemen.

There are high hopes that some young players, such as Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, can emerge as threats, but the Saints don't have a history of sitting around and waiting for young players to develop. More than any team in the NFC South, they have shown a willingness to bring in veterans in recent years. They couldn't do that early in the offseason because of salary-cap concerns. But now that Brees' deal is done, the Saints have some cap space to work with. If an experienced pass-rusher is released or becomes available via trade, I can see the Saints pouncing.

One thing we won't see: A rookie in the starting lineup. The Saints didn't have a pick in the first two rounds of this year's draft. But this isn't a team that has asked many of its first-round picks (see Malcolm Jenkins, Patrick Robinson and Robert Meachem) to start right away. The Saints did a nice job of addressing their needs through free agency.

Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, a third-round pick, and receiver Nick Toon, a fourth-round choice, might be the only rookies you will see much of this season. Hicks has chance to work his way into the rotation with Sedrick Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley. Toon could be the fourth receiver, behind Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore.

At best, Hicks and Toon will be role players this season. But the hope is that those two, and the rest of this draft class, can make a bigger impact down the road.

Buccaneers Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
11:50
AM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: Nothing and no one is sacred. We've already seen new coach Greg Schiano unload safety Tanard Jackson and tight end Kellen Winslow. They were talented, but their personalities didn't fit with Schiano's disciplined environment. The weeding-out process might not be over. Schiano is going to use camp to make sure the 53 players on his opening-day roster have bought into his philosophy.

Players such as receiver Mike Williams, running back LeGarrette Blount and linebacker Quincy Black are talented, but their play was inconsistent last season. There's no question Schiano and his staff are looking for talent, but they have made it clear they are looking for "Buccaneer Men." Other than his draft picks, Schiano isn't wedded to anyone. If he sees players who don't want to do things his way, they will get a chance to play for someone else.

One thing that might happen: While a disciplined approach will be the norm for everyone else, the Bucs might use training camp to get Josh Freeman to loosen up. The quarterback has admitted he was trying too hard and often forced things in a disappointing 2011 season. If the Bucs are going to improve, they need Freeman to be better.

The best way to accomplish that is to get Freeman in a relaxed mode and let him have some fun. The arrival of receiver Vincent Jackson and the drafting of running back Doug Martin instantly improved Freeman's supporting cast, while the signing of guard Carl Nicks solidified the offensive line. The Bucs also made some moves that should lead to improvements on defense.

Freeman has a better team around him than he did last season. He needs to realize that he doesn't have to carry the franchise. He just needs to go out and have fun; positive results will follow.

One thing we won't see: An overabundance of tight end Dallas Clark on the practice field or in preseason games. The Bucs are extremely young just about everywhere, but tight end is the one position where they got older. They let Winslow go because he didn't fit with the new regime. The Bucs replaced him with Clark, who is 33 and missed 15 games in his final two seasons in Indianapolis. Clark needs some time to bond with Freeman, but it shouldn't take him long to pick up the offense. The Bucs plan to throw to him a fair amount during the regular season.

This camp is more important for second-year pro Luke Stocker. Given Clark's age and the fact that he has never been used extensively as the blocker, Stocker is going to have to fill that role. He needs the camp repetitions more than Clark. Stocker had only 12 catches as a rookie, and he needs to work on his receiving skills so his presence on the field doesn't send out a signal to opposing defenses that the Bucs will run the ball on that play.

Panthers Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
11:30
AM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: Quarterback Cam Newton won't be learning on the fly. Last year, Newton spent almost no time with his coaches before training camp opened because of the lockout. Everything was new to him, and there were many moments when he looked like a rookie. The Panthers didn't fully grasp what they had until Newton passed for more than 400 yards in the season opener.

This time around, Newton knows his teammates and the playbook. All indications are he spent as much time at the team facility as allowed in the offseason and worked out elsewhere during the time the players weren't allowed to be with coaches. That's why I’m not buying into the talk about Newton hitting a sophomore slump. Sure, opponents now have an idea of what to expect from Newton, but he knows what he is doing and knows what to expect from defenses.

One thing that might happen: If outside linebacker Thomas Davis can be the player he was before three torn ACLs, it will be one of the greatest comeback stories in NFL history. Davis was a top-notch outside linebacker. Coaches and team officials have raved about how hard Davis has worked in his rehab and are keeping their fingers crossed that he can stay healthy. With a strong training camp and preseason, Davis can jump right back into the starting lineup.

But the Panthers know they can't count on that. They're prepared to use Jon Beason, Luke Kuechly and James Anderson as their starting linebackers. That's a pretty solid group. But it could be even better if Davis is healthy and able to move into the lineup ahead of Anderson.

One thing we won't see: Captain Munnerlyn won't get all the first-team work as the No. 2 cornerback during camp and the preseason. The Panthers are going to take long looks at rookie Josh Norman and second-year pro Brandon Hogan. The hope within the coaching staff is that one of those two can earn the starting job. They both are bigger than Munnerlyn, which allows them to match up better with larger receivers on the outside.

Ideally, the Panthers would like to use Munnerlyn as the No. 3 cornerback. In a worst-case scenario, Munnerlyn could retain the starting position but slide inside to play slot receivers in passing situations with Norman or Hogan coming on the field on those downs. The Panthers are so aware of the matchup problems they faced with Munnerlyn last season that they may be willing to start Norman or Hogan even if they don't have great preseasons.

Falcons Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
11:00
AM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: You're going to see a ton of second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons have tried to go lightly on starter Michael Turner in recent preseasons because they knew he would be carrying a heavy load in the regular season. You'll see even more effort in that direction this year because the Falcons have been clear that they want to limit Turner's workload in 2012. He still will be the starter and will get the bulk of the carries.

Coordinator Dirk Koetter is bringing in a new offensive scheme, and Rodgers has a chance to be an important part of that. Turner is a power runner and never has been much of a factor as a receiver out of the backfield. Rodgers has the tools to be a threat as a receiver, and the Falcons want to get him involved and create a new wrinkle in their offense.

But the Falcons are hoping Rodgers can be more of a third-down back. He is not the same type of runner as Turner, but there is hope Rodgers can make an impact. The Falcons are serious about limiting Turner's workload. Jason Snelling has been a dependable backup and still will have a role, but he is a power runner like Turner. Rodgers has a chance to bring a new element to the offense, and that's what a team trying to get over a big hurdle -- winning a playoff game -- is looking for.

One thing that might happen: Coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff haven't been shy about is making some significant moves later in the preseason. In recent years, they have realized they have had a lack of depth in the secondary, which is why guys such as Kelvin Hayden and James Sanders joined the team just before the start of the regular season.

I don't think the secondary will be the area the Falcons address this offseason. Instead, the defensive line could be the targeted spot. The Falcons hope that Ray Edwards, Kroy Biermann or Lawrence Sidbury can give them another pass-rusher to go with John Abraham. They also are hoping that defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux can bounce back from a subpar season and that Peria Jerry can reach the potential the Falcons saw before he was injured early in his rookie season. If none of those things happen, the Falcons won't hesitate to comb the waiver wire or make a trade for a veteran defensive lineman (or two). This is too important of a season for this team to sit still if the coaches aren't seeing signs of hope on the defensive line in training camp.

One thing we won't see: It doesn't sound as if there will be the flat-out competition many expected between second-year pro Akeem Dent and veteran Lofa Tatupu for the starting job at middle linebacker. Tatupu suffered a pectoral injury last week and won't be ready for the start of training camp. The extent of his injury is unclear, and it's possible that another serious injury could force Tatupu, who sat out last season, to retire. He would have been a short-term solution at best anyway.

Dent is the guy the Falcons want in the middle for the long term. The Falcons want him to be a two-down player for now, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to find another veteran to push him for the starting job, although some depth could be added. The Falcons should give Dent all the first-team snaps in training camp and get him ready to be the starter.

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