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Summer Questions: NFC South

One way the Falcons addressed their offensive line was by drafting Jake Matthews in the first round. AP Photo/John Bazemore


Atlanta Falcons

Q: Will the Falcons' offensive line show necessary improvement group in 2014?

A: On paper, I would say this is an accurate statement based on the offseason additions. Signing right guard Jon Asamoah and drafting right tackle Jake Matthews immediately upgraded the unit. At the same time, the success of the line will depend on how it jells.

Matt Ryan was the most pressured quarterback in the league last season, and the Falcons ranked dead last in rushing. Center Joe Hawley and left guard Justin Blalock were a part of that miserable group, so they both have to show advancement. Having Asamoah next to him should help Hawley tremendously, because he had very little help at right guard last season. As for Blalock, he'll have Sam Baker to his left, although there's no guarantee Baker will be 100 percent coming off a significant knee surgery. But if Baker regains the form he displayed two seasons ago, the Falcons should be solid on both sides.

New offensive line coach Mike Tice, with his direct approach, should have no problem instilling more toughness. But Tice's lessons have to be carried over from practice into game day. How will the line perform when the lights are on? The season opener against New Orleans and Rob Ryan's exotic defensive looks should provide a glimpse of how much progress the line has made. As much as Matthews has been touted as NFL-ready, there's no guarantee he'll dominate immediately. He'll have a learning curve, like all rookies. However, if Matthews gets off to a slow start, there should be no reason to panic as long as he steadily progresses from week to week.

-- Vaughn McClure


Carolina Panthers

Q: Will the offense regress after the Panthers parted ways with their top four wide receivers and lost left tackle Jordan Gross to retirement?

A: Popular opinion has the Panthers regressing from last season's 12-4 record, in part because they released all-time leading receiver Steve Smith, let three other wide receivers sign elsewhere in free agency and lost Gross to retirement. That they didn't replace them with big names further fuels that argument.

It shouldn't. Not only will the Panthers be better offensively, they have a chance to be significantly better.

They can't get much worse.

Consider: They ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yards (190.2 per game) and 26th in total yards (316.8 per game) with the players many say they will miss. Ten tight ends in the league had more than Smith's 64 catches, which ranked 49th in the league. Among those were Carolina's Greg Olsen with 73, and he didn't go anywhere. Brandon LaFell ranked 64th in receptions with 49. Ted Ginn Jr. ranked 80th with 36. Carolina receivers averaged fewer than 10 catches per game. Think about it: Ten. That's not a lot to replace.

They added another receiving tight end, Ed Dickson, in free agency with the plan to run more two-tight end sets like they did in 2011, when quarterback Cam Newton set a rookie passing record with 4,051 yards. They added two experienced possession receivers in Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant and drafted a potentially dynamic receiver, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, with the No. 28 pick. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Benjamin will be an important weapon for Newton in the red zone.

As for the line, the Panthers had a patchwork group of guards after losing three to season-ending injuries, including both starters. They still averaged 126.6 rushing yards per game. All of the injured players are back, which should be an upgrade.

Then there's Newton. He made huge strides between his second and third seasons. He did this playing on an ankle that has given him trouble since his senior season at Auburn. Offseason surgery should fix that, meaning one of the league's top running quarterbacks should be better than ever.

-- David Newton


New Orleans Saints

Q: Are the Saints sacrificing their future by pushing so many salary-cap costs back every year?

A: It sure doesn't seem like it. This has actually proven to be one of the biggest misconceptions around the NFL in recent years. The Saints were slammed tight against the cap this year, too, and it didn't stop them from signing one of the top free agents on the market in safety Jairus Byrd at $9 million per season -- just like it didn't stop them from making one of the best free-agent pickups last year with cornerback Keenan Lewis.

Of course, the Saints' tight cap space has forced them to make tough choices to part ways with longtime veterans when they feel like those players' salaries no longer match their values (see Darren Sproles, Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer this offseason).

However, most of those decisions are football-based. The only player in that group who came as a surprise was Sproles, but the Saints had an overcrowded backfield and were able to trade him for a fifth-round pick.

The key, as Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has explained it, is the Saints can't afford many mistakes with their draft picks or free-agent signings since they have a slimmer margin for error. ESPN analyst and former NFL personnel man Louis Riddick agreed with that assessment, pointing out that the Dallas Cowboys have struggled in similar cap circumstances because they haven't been as successful with landing cheaper talent.

The Saints still have some exorbitant cap costs they'll have to deal with in the future (Drew Brees and Byrd will vault considerably next year, and a new long-term deal for Jimmy Graham likely will include back-loaded cap costs).

But so far, the Saints have proven they won't let their cap situation paralyze them. And there's no reason to expect things to change -- especially with the salary cap expected to keep rising.

-- Mike Triplett


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Q: Will the arrival of head coach Lovie Smith instantly make the Bucs better?

A: Smith has extensive NFL experience, something predecessor Greg Schiano lacked. Schiano's tenure was doomed from the start because he went about things in a collegiate manner. Sure, some discipline was needed to fix the mess that Raheem Morris left, but Schiano went overboard. He was a control freak, and players didn't respond well to that.

Smith cares about the culture of his team and isn't going to put up with off-field trouble. But he's going to treat players like adults and not micromanage them. One reason players never bought into Schiano was that he had never been a head coach in the NFL and was only relatively successful at Rutgers.

Smith comes with a much stronger résumé, and that should command immediate respect. He has been to a Super Bowl and has won a lot of games, and he knows his way around the Bucs organization, having served as the team's linebackers coach under Tony Dungy from 1996-2000.

Smith also is more flexible than Schiano as a tactician. Smith will bring back the Tampa 2 defense and center things around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. Schiano didn't always cater to the skills of McCoy and David, and that was a mistake.

Smith views McCoy and David as the second coming of Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. If that turns out to be true, Tampa Bay could go from mediocrity to being contenders in a hurry.

-- Pat Yasinskas