By the end of this month, training camps will open across the NFL. Where are the looming position battles to keep tabs on? Who are the critical players to watch? We'll provide each team's keys in this division-by-division series. Today, Dan Parr digs into the NFC South:
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 18) and veterans (July 21).
Most important position battle: offensive line. I think we all can agree there should be no higher priority in the ATL than keeping a clean pocket for Matt Ryan, right? Good. I knew I could count on you. Now, the Falcons had their share of issues in that regard in 2018 -- Ryan was sacked 42 times, the second-most of his career -- as injuries played a role in the decline, so GM Thomas Dimitroff set out this offseason to ensure that those terrors weren't relived in 2019. Atlanta's top two free-agent signings (James Carpenter and Jamon Brown) and top pick in the draft (Chris Lindstrom) were guards, and now all three will compete for two starting spots. Lindstrom, the 14th overall pick, is the likely starter at right guard, where he could end up playing next to his fellow 2019 first-rounder, offensive tackle Kaleb McGary, but the club now has veteran options if Lindstrom, a rare athlete for the position but one who's been inconsistent in some areas (like establishing leverage at the line of scrimmage) and/or McGary (some considered him a better fit to play guard in the NFL) aren't quite ready for prime time right off the bat. Dimitroff didn't spend first-rounders on these guys to watch them sit on the bench, though.
Newcomer/players returning from injury to watch: Keanu Neal, safety; Deion Jones, linebacker. Yes, I know I'm kind of cheating since I'm picking two players for this category and Jones returned from his foot injury before the end of last season, but I have a point to make here, OK? The Falcons had a top-10 defense when these two disruptors were healthy in 2017. Look what happened to the unit in 2018 after they went down with injuries in Week 1:
Jones wasn't quite the same dominant dude when he returned for Weeks 13-17. Will he get back to his elite form now that he's had a full offseason to recover? Neal participated last month in his first full practice since tearing his ACL in the season opener last year, which was a good sign. Dan Quinn needs his heat-seeking missile back.
Looming camp question: Is this team going to be able to pressure quarterbacks on a consistent basis? The Falcons need the opposite of what Vic Beasley gave them last year, when he was the league's lowest-graded edge defender, per PFF. He hasn't been anywhere close to the same guy he was in 2016, when he led the league with 15.5 sacks (he has 10 in the two seasons since and recorded a career-low 20 tackles in 16 games last season). Maybe being in a contract year will shake him from his slumber. On the other edge, another former first-rounder, Takk McKinley, hasn't lived up to his billing and has spent some of his offseason in odd squabbles with the media. The team's top pass rusher, Grady Jarrett, has received the franchise tag but remains unsigned as of this writing. If everything comes together, this group could be ferocious. It was a long way from that last year, though, and it could be very scary for Falcons fans if they see more of the same off the edge.
Training camp report dates: rookies and veterans (July 24).
Location: Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Most important position battle: offensive line. We could go with free safety here, but that appears to be Rashaan Gaulden's job to lose. The real intrigue is up front on offense, where the Panthers were ravaged by injuries before the season even started last year. That was a real bummer. Anyway, there's no job more important than protecting the franchise (Cam, who happens to be coming off his second shoulder surgery in less than two years), and GM Marty Hurney made some major investments this offseason to help in that effort. He shelled out big bucks to free-agent center Matt Paradis and re-signed 2017 second-team All-Pro Daryl Williams, who missed all but one game last season with a knee injury, before drafting Greg Little in the second round to replenish the group. It looks like Little will get every opportunity to win the job at left tackle, while Williams moves from his natural position of tackle to left guard. But you can bet Williams, playing on a one-year prove-it deal, would love a chance to show he can thrive as Newton's blindside protector. He could get the chance if Little needs more time before he's ready for such an important gig. Then again, last year's starter at left guard, Greg Van Roten, doesn't figure to give up his old spot without a fight. As of now, the positions it seems we can lock in are Taylor Moton at right tackle (although he could also end up at left tackle if Little struggles), Pro Bowler Trai Turner at right guard and the aforementioned Paradis at center, where the Panthers are replacing retired 11-year starter Ryan Kalil.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Brian Burns, edge rusher. What's a good way to wake up a sleepy pass rush? How about adding a 6-foot-5, 249-pounder with eye-popping get-off to create headaches for offensive coordinators? The Panthers produced 35 sacks last season -- sixth-fewest in the league -- and then Julius Peppers retired after the season, which are big reasons why they spent the 16th overall pick on Burns, a freakish edge rusher from Florida State who led the nation in pressures in the regular season, per Pro Football Focus. Now, yes, there were concerns about Burns' frame and strength during draft season, even after he put on 20-plus pounds just to get up to 249 at the NFL Scouting Combine. So, it's worth keeping an eye on whether Burns is being engulfed by blockers or teeing off on them in camp (we're guessing it will be more of the latter).
Looming camp question: Is Cam Newton the same old Cam? You knew we wouldn't get through a whole section on the Panthers without digging into the question that rules them all, right? As you might have heard, Cam had shoulder surgery in January. Cam has altered his throwing motion this offseason. Cam didn't participate in team drills during minicamp but he was throwing downfield in individual drills last month. The next steps are seeing how long it takes him to get his timing down with his targets and how his body reacts to the rigors of his role. If he gets back to his old ways -- you know, the guy who led Carolina to a 6-2 start last season before he and the team broke down -- Ron Rivera's squad should at least be in the hunt for a playoff spot. If he doesn't, I'll venture to guess some folks will be looking for new jobs after the season.
New Orleans Saints
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 18) and veterans (July 25).
Most important position battle: nickel back. This is basically a starting job in New Orleans, as the Saints were in nickel on 79 percent of their defensive snaps last season (second-most of any team), according to Football Outsiders. There's an interesting competition brewing here between P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson. Williams saw most of the time with the first unit during offseason activities, and showed great improvement over the course of last season. But Robinson, who missed all but a few games in 2018 with a broken ankle, is a wily veteran you can't count out in this tussle. Fourth-round pick Chauncey Gardner-Johnson might find his way into the mix, as well. The rookie allowed a passer rating of just 45.4 on throws into his slot coverage last season at Florida, per PFF.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Marcus Davenport, defensive end. Davenport revealed after last season that he never returned to 100 percent after injuring his toe in October and underwent a procedure, the nature of which he did not specify. He showed he can wreak havoc vs. the run and the pass, particularly in his two-sack game against the Vikings, when he suffered the toe injury. But he recorded just .5 sacks in his final eight games, including the playoffs, as it appeared the injury took its toll. Expectations, however, are heightened for a player that cost the Saints a 2019 first-round pick to draft. The club needs him to be the full-time starter opposite Cam Jordan this time around after he worked in a rotation as a rookie. There's not a lot of depth when it comes to pass rushers on this roster. Davenport has to step up (and stay healthy).
Looming camp question: Is everything OK? This franchise has suffered devastating playoff defeats in consecutive seasons, the likes of which you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy (or maybe you would). Everyone will be watching to see if there's any hangover effect on this team. Attention might be focused particularly on a passing game that abandoned its usual sterling form down the stretch. The Drew Brees-led offense averaged 37.2 points per game through 11 contests, but put up just 19.7 points per outing in its final seven games, including the playoffs. Brees' production plummeted during that stretch, as he threw just seven TDs and five interceptions in his last six starts. We're not here to predict the demise of one of the all-time greats, but it would be nice to hear some reassuring reports about the 40-year-old QB once we get into the thick of training camp. This offense lost C Max Unger and RB Mark Ingram in the offseason but gained TE Jared Cook (who should help Brees in a big way) and RB Latavius Murray before drafting C Erik McCoy in the second round. Maybe everything's just fine here. But the question most certainly looms.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 21) and veterans (July 25).
Location: AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa, Florida.
Most important position battle: safety. The Bucs need somebody (anybody) to step up here. It's a similar (perhaps slightly better?) situation at corner. Best of luck, NFL safety-turned-defensive-coordinator Todd Bowles. Tampa Bay hasn't had a Pro Bowl player at the position since the days of John Lynch nearly two decades ago, and it seems highly unlikely that the streak will end in 2019. The primary starters from last season, Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead, are back, but they were part of a pass defense that ranked last in the league in passer rating (110.9), yards per attempt (8.2) and completion percentage (72.5). BREAKING: That's not good. Now, the team did sign Packers non-tender Kentrell Brice, who has a chance to start, and spent a third-round pick on Kentucky safety Mike Edwards. It's not a surprise that two top undrafted safeties, D'Cota Dixon and Lukas Denis, chose to hop aboard the pirate ship given the team's long-running issues at the position. The contenders for playing time here are all young -- 26-year-old Isaiah Johnson is the senior statesman of the group -- and the competition appears to be wide open. Bruce Arians announced a little over a month ago that his secondary is "totally fixed." Which is great news, obviously. But we'll wait to see it before we believe it.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Devin White, linebacker. Speaking of fixing the defense, the selection of White is Exhibit A in that enterprise. GM Jason Licht made the former LSU star the fifth overall pick of this year's draft, and the expectation is he'll be a plug-and-play, sideline-to-sideline menace for a revamped defense under Bowles. The reviews from OTAs/minicamp were glowing, as you'd expect, and while taking a middle 'backer instead of, say, a pass rusher with the fifth pick might not have sat well with every Bucs fan, White has the tangibles and intangibles to become a perennial Pro Bowler. This season is about setting a new tone (and winning a lot more games) in Tampa, and it's worth tuning in to see if White does indeed become an immediate leader in that effort.
Looming camp question: Is this a new beginning or the beginning of the end for Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay? You might have heard that this is a pivotal year for Winston, who's due to hit the open market eight months from now. The former No. 1 overall pick has been plagued by bad decisions and was benched in favor of Fitzmagic for a stretch last season after turning the ball over seven times in two games. Winston has never really made much progress from his rookie season, moving laterally if not in reverse. The "Bruce Arians is the QB whisperer who will fix him" narrative was in full force this offseason (well, until Arians said he's not the one whispering to Winston), and training camp will be the first real gauge on whether any of the coaching is taking root with the 25-year-old passer.