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NFC South training camp preview: Saints' QB battle looms; will Kyle Pitts boost Falcons' attack?

With the unified start to training camp right around the corner on Tuesday, July 27, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Jelani Scott has the lowdown on position battles, key players and notable subplots across the NFC South.

Atlanta Falcons
2020 record: 4-12

Location: IBM Performance Field, Flowery Branch, Georgia (and Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta)

Most important position battle: Safety. The Falcons enter camp needing to manufacture not one but two starters at the safety position. So who are the names in the running, you might wonder? Thanks for asking! Offseason additions Duron Harmon and Erik Harris, second-year talent Jaylinn Hawkins and rookie Richie Grant figure to be the select few jostling for reps. In a division loaded with explosive backs and stout tight ends, the players that prove versatile enough to hang in coordinator Dean Pees' scheme will get the nod. Harmon and Harris bring the most experience, but the promising Grant could find himself in the lineup come Week 1, based on how the second-round selection progresses. Hawkins is a bit of a wild card but possesses the skillset to become a potential camp breakout. All four could shift between free and strong safety as needed, but who emerges as the tone-setters will be vital as Atlanta looks to repair one of the NFL's worst secondaries.

Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Kyle Pitts, tight end. The generational talent. The can't miss prospect. The unicorn. Kyle Pitts has held these and other monikers since ascending to pre-draft stardom. No player on this roster evokes as much excitement as the Florida product touted by many as having few weaknesses in his game. Under first-year coach Arthur Smith, the Falcons should utilize two-tight end sets often, with Pitts and Hayden Hurst sure to share the field frequently. Pitts' arrival becomes even more important when you consider the question marks behind Calvin Ridley at receiver. At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, Pitts has the makeup of a playmaker that can become a matchup nightmare -- and Matt Ryan's favorite target -- in a matter of weeks. Did I mention Ryan is "fired up" to bring the young gun aboard? It's clear the No. 4 overall pick carries a "must-watch" label that should become even more prominent as we get closer to the season. It's way too soon to predict a 2016-esque offensive resurgence, but it will be fun to watch the early workings of Smith's offensive genius with Pitts and these Falcons at his disposal.

Other subplots to track:

  • Barkevious Mingo's release amid ongoing legal troubles made an already sketchy pass-rushing corps even thinner ahead of camp. Last offseason's free-agency splash, Dante Fowler, will look to use this summer to get back on track. Behind him are Steven Means, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and rookie Adetokunbo Ogundeji, all of whom could be forced into roles none are ready to take on. A shot of veteran help, i.e. Justin Houston or Melvin Ingram, may be in order for this bunch.
  • Another training camp, another secondary-wide assessment on tap for the Falcons. When examining the corners, second-year talent A.J. Terrell jumps out after a solid rookie campaign. He should provide some stability to a unit still wholly in flux. Fabian Moreau, Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield and rookie Darren Hall will likely compete for reps, but outside of them, the options are rather middling. Pees and secondary coach Jon Hoke will certainly have their work cut out for them.
  • The top three pass-catching options are seemingly in place, but Nos. 4 and 5 definitely can't afford to be slouches. All eyes will be on Ridley, given that this is his first camp as the big dog on the block following Julio Jones' trade to Tennessee, but how Atlanta vets the remaining wideouts will be important when it comes to adding depth. Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus and Christian Blake are poised to engage in a heated battle for coveted starter and rotation reps.
  • With three former first-rounders in tow, the Falcons have one of the NFL's most promising offensive lines. Currently, Jake Matthews is slotted to protect Ryan's blind side; Matt Hennessy occupies center; and Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary fill out the right side. All that remains is the opening at left guard, which could come down to journeyman Josh Andrews and rookie Jalen Mayfield. The need inside could warrant a move for the versatile third-rounder, who played mostly right tackle at Michigan.
Carolina Panthers
2020 record: 5-11

Location: Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Most important position battle: Left tackle. Panthers fans will respect Jordan Gross forever, but the fact that Carolina has shuffled through at least 10 starters at the position since Gross' 2013 curtain call is alarming. The 2021 season will likely see yet another LT, with newcomer Cameron Erving seeming to have the inside track. A first-round pick by the Browns in 2015, Erving hasn't lived up to his billing due to injury, but he's hung around and found some success, notably as a starter during the Chiefs' Super Bowl LIV run. Holdovers Greg Little and Trent Scott, who started a combined seven games in 2020, round out Carolina's current options at the position. Yeah, you're pretty underwhelmed, too, huh? Like Erving, Little has been plagued by ailments, which have limited him to 14 games in two years, while Scott has been subpar in his three pro years. Given the background of this trio, deciding who to task with the monumental assignment of protecting the blind side of a (resurgent?) Sam Darnold really could just come down to health. Oh, and for those wondering why third-round pick Brady Christensen wasn't discussed, Matt Rhule seems to like the idea of the rookie learning behind stud right tackle Taylor Moton for the time being.

Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Christian McCaffrey, running back. The dynamic dual threat returns to the fold fresh off ankle and shoulder injuries that kept him out of action a combined 13 games in 2020. His return cannot possibly be any more anticipated. McCaffrey not only elevates the possibilities of coordinator Joe Brady's offense, but he'll also be the most explosive playmaker Darnold has ever collaborated with. The duo's on-field workouts and off-field hangouts seem to suggest they'll be the best of friends by Week 1. Assuming we'll be seeing the CMC of old, his workload should consist of 25-plus touches per night and generate several countdown-worthy highlights. Of course, before we all start pre-calculating his fantasy numbers, ensuring his health checks out in camp will be most important. Barring a setback, there's little chance Carolina's game plan will slowly reintroduce McCaffrey, who's known for having a sky-high usage rate. With CMC's durability something to keep an eye on, the backup RB battle will be big (more on that below). Also something to watch: how McCaffrey repairs his symbiotic relationship with an alright O-line returning three starters (Moton, John Miller, Matt Paradis).

Other subplots to track:

  • As tough and talented as Mike Davis is, there was really no way the backup could cover for the McCaffrey-sized hole in the lineup last season. Still, with Davis signing in Atlanta this offseason, the individual who fills Davis' crucial role will need to prove he can be reliable. Rookie Chuba Hubbard, the resilient Reggie Bonnafon and Trenton Cannon are currently in the mix for RB2 duty. A strong showing in camp would do wonders for any one of these guys.
  • The need to generate consistent pressure has been on the docket the past couple seasons. Edge rushers Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos, along with defensive tackle Derrick Brown, represent a young core brimming with potential that could provide that for years to come. The additions of Haason Reddick and Morgan Fox in free agency should bring a boost of energy and toughness that will hopefully catapult this fledgling front line closer toward establishing an identity.
  • A.J. Bouye brings a veteran presence, but the secondary really should be centered around the Donte Jackson/Jaycee Horn tandem. Horn profiles as a lockdown corner, but the first cornerback drafted in 2021 (at No. 8 overall) will need to demonstrate he's ready to handle the NFC South's best. As for Jackson, who is entering a contract year, here are the biggest hurdles between him and a long-term deal: maturing, proving his health after recent toe injuries and improving his tackling (34 missed tackles in 43 career games, per Pro Football Focus).

New Orleans Saints
2020 record: 12-4

Location: Ochsner Sports Performance Center, Metairie, Louisiana

Most important position battle: Quarterback. Until we witness the coronation of Drew Brees' heir apparent as QB1, no other position battle will be more important. I hope Ian Book enthusiasts got a good look at the rook during draft night and OTAs, because the fourth-rounder shouldn't be seeing much of the spotlight moving forward. This competition will come down to the same two heavyweights that have been positioning themselves for the throne since last offseason: Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. Sean Payton revealed last month that the Saints intend to build the offense "a little bit" around the QB who wins the starting gig. No need to dissect just how different those schemes would look if this plan holds true. Sure, it's possible Payton already made his pick two months ago, but since that's not confirmed, the week-to-week battle between these two should make for a fascinating storyline to follow for the rest of the summer.

Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Michael Thomas, receiver. Thomas fits both sides of this category, in a Twilight Zone kind of way. On the one hand, his trophy case shows he’s a proven stud; on the other, Thomas enters the 2021 campaign as an unknown quantity. The two-time All-Pro is expected to be sidelined to start the season, after undergoing ankle surgery in June. The four-month recovery timeline adds a boatload of additional question marks surrounding the 28-year-old’s long-term durability, which was already a slippery slope following an injury-riddled, career-worst season (missed nine games). When he was able to play in 2020, there were moments where “Can't Guard Mike” looked more like “Can’t See Mike,” with the former Offensive Player of the Year failing to score once in seven regular-season games. This latest setback now stymies his attempt at a rebound year. An offense already aching from Brees’ departure will now have to account for the void created by the absence of one of its most seasoned players.

Other subplots to track:

  • Thomas' importance to this roster becomes even clearer when examining the team's remaining offensive assets. Yes, the Saints will still deploy human cheat code Alvin Kamara, which is always fun, but who else will step up? Free-agent options are slim -- Kenny Stills reunion, anyone? -- so the Saints could opt to stay in-house, in which case fourth-year wideout Tre'Quan Smith, return man Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway are next in line. Coming off his best year as a pro, Smith will be one to keep an eye on, especially now that he's been seemingly thrust into No. 1 status with Thomas sidelined.
  • Outside of perennial Pro Bowler Cam Jordan, no one on the defensive line is a sure thing. The Saints would surely love for Marcus Davenport, the 14th overall pick in 2018, to finally put it all together in Year 4. Sixth-year pro David Onyemata (30 starts, 9.5 sacks since 2019) brings hope, given his time in coordinator Dennis Allen's system. (UPDATE: Onyemata has been suspended for six games for violation of the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.) Overall, expect this to be a wide-open competition, with Shy Tuttle, Malcolm Roach, first-rounder Payton Turner and veterans Tanoh Kpassagnon and Noah Spence likely in the mix for first-team reps.
  • It's not unreasonable to think the Saints could still add a vet, but for now, we must assess the CB room as it is. Marshon Lattimore is a lock, but it remains to be seen who will line up opposite the 25-year-old standout. C.J Gardner-Johnson could again start in the slot as he did most of 2020, leaving P.J. Williams, the oft-injured Patrick Robinson and rookie Paulson Adebo to fight for the remaining spot.
  • Payton's usage of his tight ends is a well-documented aspect of the Saints' offense -- but 2021 will be the first year in some time that the team doesn't have a go-to option. Nick Vannett and Adam Trautman fit the mold of the big-bodied, run-blocking security blanket Payton likes, but who emerges as the starter is still up for debate. Of course, there's always a chance Hill will dip into those TE reps, as well.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2020 record: 11-5

Location: AdventHealth Training Center, Tampa, Florida


Most important position battle: Running back. RB committees reign supreme these days, and the Bucs possess one of the NFL's most impressive units. With savvy vet Giovani Bernard all but locked in as a third-down back, the battle between Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette to see who will take the lead will be one to watch. As we all may recall, the 23-year-old Jones turned in a career year during the regular season, while the 26-year-old Fournette, a.k.a "Playoff/Super Bowl/Lombardi Lenny," stepped up in a big way in the postseason. The two power backs will likely rotate first-team reps at the start, but it'll be interesting to see who receives the lion's share as camp progresses. Truth be told, both still need to work on being more consistent. But given their effectiveness and explosiveness, neither would be a bad choice. One thing we do already know is that a 2020 starter will occupy all 22 starting spots for the Bucs in 2021. Now, all that's left for Bruce Arians and RB coach Todd McNair to figure out is who will get the honor of helping set the tone alongside Tom Brady.

Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: O.J. Howard, tight end. It must be nice, being a reigning Super Bowl champion able to supply a legendary QB with an arsenal of weapons that could include three starting-caliber tight ends. The Bucs' embarrassment of riches might grow even more embarrassingly rich if Howard proves not to be fool's gold. At age 26, the 2017 first-rounder has the potential to be Tampa's TE of the future -- so, needless to say, how he bounces back from the torn Achilles he suffered in October is muy importante. Making sure he's physically ready to go will be a top priority, right next to re-establishing what appeared to be a quickly budding working relationship with Brady. With Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate still in town, Howard will have the fortune of easing his way back into the lineup. His injury history and looming contract year, however, won't afford him too much leeway for getting re-adjusted. If he manages to be even a measure of the player he's been when fully healthy, this already-stacked offense will somehow reach new levels of absurdity.

Other subplots to track:

  • When it comes to Tom Brady, anything classified as "minor" instantly becomes "major." So, when news of his knee surgery became public, eyebrows went up across the league. His comments during last month's minicamp likely tempered any thoughts of a health-related fall-off, but how much the 43-year-old sees the field will be intriguing, to say the least.
  • Speaking of QBs, Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Griffin and rookie Kyle Trask complete the depth chart. Assuming Brady plans to call it quits sometime this decade, his backup could be in position to take the reins. With journeymen Gabbert and Griffin on the wrong side of 30, the 23-year-old Trask and his young legs look like a potential successor. The second-rounder had better spend every moment of camp learning from the G.O.A.T. while he can.
  • The Bucs were fortunate enough to spend the offseason shoring up their battle-tested roster, meaning the pressure is essentially off for any newcomers. Rookie edge rusher Joe Tryon, though still a little raw, brings a motor and upside that makes the first-round pick a tantalizing option for Todd Bowles to bring along next to Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. Also, shout-out to former Navy corner Cameron Kinley, who will be vying for a spot after recently receiving clearance from the Secretary of Defense to delay his service while he pursues his NFL career.

Follow Jelani Scott on Twitter.

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