NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (12-6)
OPEN CAMP: July 26, Ochsner Sports Performance Center, Metairie, Louisiana
LAST YEAR: Helped by infusion of elite young talent, Saints pulled out of three-year rut of mediocrity and won NFC South. They were seconds away from advancing to NFC title game, only to be thwarted by Minnesota receiver Stefon Diggs‘ winning touchdown as time expired in divisional round. New Orleans received major contributions from running back and Offensive Rookie of Year Alvin Kamara, and cornerback and Defensive Rookie of Year Marshon Lattimore. Several other first-and second-year players filled regular roles as well, and veteran Drew Brees remained one of NFL’s top QBs.
CAMP NEEDS: Lineup is relatively stable from last-season’s playoff run, but New Orleans looking to bolster pass rush by finding someone who can make offenses pay for sending multiple blockers at All-Pro end Cameron Jordan. Saints want Davenport to develop into that player. But he is raw in first season out of UTSA. Saints also want to figure out which running backs can fill in for Mark Ingram during his four-game suspension to open season. Veteran free agents Shane Vereen and Terrence West, along with draft pick Boston Scott and second-year pro Trey Edmunds, are competing for those snaps.
EXPECTATIONS: Saints appear to have gotten stronger and deeper than last season, particularly with additions on defense. Keys to improving are how well new players fit and, as usual, avoiding injuries. If Davenport develops quickly, Saints could be elite. If not, teams with good plan to block Jordan could give New Orleans fits.
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CAROLINA PANTHERS (11-6)
OPEN CAMP: July 26, Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina
LAST YEAR: Panthers enjoyed bounce-back season after failing to reach playoffs in 2017. Carolina lost three times to New Orleans, including wild-card playoffs. No deep threat, lengthy injury to TE Greg Olsen and poor pass protection doomed offense. Defense remained one of NFL’s best behind high MLB Luke Kuechly.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Rookie WR D.J. Moore, WR Torrey Smith, WR Jarius Wright, RB C.J. Anderson, RB Kenjon Barner, G Jeremiah Sirles, DT Dontari Poe, rookie CB Donte Jackson, CB Ross Cockrell, S Da’Norris Searcy.
CAMP NEEDS: Panthers need to adjust to three new coordinators: Norv Turner (offense), Eric Washington (defense) and Chase Blackburn (special teams). Turner’s relationship with QB Cam Newton critical to team’s success. Second-year RB Christian McCaffrey is featured back with Jonathan Stewart gone. Team expected to use more two tight end sets, play-action under Turner. Addition of WRs D.J. Moore, Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright should bolster passing game. Washington inherits defense looking to replace four starters (Lotulelei, Johnson, Coleman and Worley). Kuechly, DT Kawann Short, LB Thomas Davis, CB James Bradberry and pass-rushing tandem Julius Peppers and Mario Addison (11 sacks each) all return. GM Marty Hurney thrilled with second-round pick CB Donte Jackson, who’ll start.
EXPECTATIONS: Core of team that’s been to postseason four of past five seasons remains intact, but aging quickly. Peppers is 38, S Mike Adams 37, Davis 35, and C Ryan Kalil and Olsen are 33. Newton is 29. Plenty of pressure to win now under new owner David Tepper before window closes. Carolina should compete for NFC South title with New Orleans and Atlanta if offense improves.
ATLANTA FALCONS (11-7)
OPEN CAMP: July 27, Falcons practice facility, Flowery Branch, Georgia
LAST YEAR: One year after reaching Super Bowl, Falcons finished third in NFC South and lost to Philadelphia in second round of playoffs. Quarterback Matt Ryan, working under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian, had decline in production from 2016, when team led NFL in scoring. Ryan still signed five-year, $150 million deal in offseason. Good news is young defense, led by speedy linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, allowed 318.4 yards per game, significant drop from 371.2 in 2016.
CAMP NEEDS: Spotlight will be on WR Julio Jones after team announced it won’t renegotiate his current $71.5 million contract. Jones has three years remaining in five-year deal. Jones did not attend minicamp, and training camp holdout could be major distraction to ”brotherhood” atmosphere promoted by coach Dan Quinn. Defensive front will be concern following losses of Poe and Clayborn. Senat could have opportunity for immediate playing time, if not starting role. Ridley needs to prove he can handle No. 3 receiver spot behind Jones and Mohamed Sanu and be ready for even bigger role.
EXPECTATIONS: Ryan is 33, Jones is 29, RB Devonta Freeman had two concussions, including one in preseason, and knee injury last season, and RB Tevin Coleman could be free agent after this season. These are all alarm signals as window for current offense is narrowing. While young defense is emerging as team’s strength, Atlanta’s offense needs to re-emerge in second season with Sarkasian if team can have real hope for second Super Bowl appearance in three years. Addition of Fusco should add more stability to interior offensive line. Competitive NFC South doesn’t lessen expectations. Anything less than 10 wins and another postseason would be disappointment.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (5-11)
OPEN CAMP: July 26, One Buccaneer Place, Tampa, Florida
LAST YEAR: Failed to play up to heightened expectations coming off winning nine games previous season. Lost 10 of 13 following 2-1 start, missing playoffs for 10th straight year. QB Jameis Winston missed three games, plus most of fourth due to injury he tried to play through in three other starts. Lack of consistent running attack was problem. Gerald McCoy-led defense was disappointing, too, ranking last in league with 22 sacks.
CAMP NEEDS: Reconstructing defensive line and improving anemic pass rush were top priorities this offseason. However, getting newcomers Pierre-Paul, Allen, Curry, Unrein and first-round draft pick Vea acclimated to defensive coordinator Mike Smith’s system isn’t only concern entering camp. Winston will miss first three games of season while serving suspension for violating NFL’s personal conduct policy. So, balancing starter’s workload in practice along with that of backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, will be focal point during preseason.
EXPECTATIONS: With Winston entering his fourth season, suspended three games for off-field behavior and also due to see his salary increase to $20.9 million in 2019, coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht – as well as 24-year-old Winston – are on hot seat to end franchise’s long playoff drought. Winston will miss season opener at New Orleans, as well as home games against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. An 0-3 start could be difficult to overcome, even if Pierre-Paul, Vea and Curry are answers to club’s pass-rushing woes.
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