Preseason Watchlist - NFC South
By Jason Wood
July 24th, 2012

Atlanta Falcons

  • Link: http://www.atlantafalcons.com/aftc12/
  • Location: Falcons Training Facility (Flowery Branch, GA)
  • Dates: July 26 August 19
  • Open to the public? YES (free of charge)
  • The Falcons finished 10-6 last year but a lopsided playoff loss to the New York Giants and the departure of both coordinators in the offseason make this a very important camp. Are the Falcons ready to take the final step and become a true title contender, or were the chinks in the armor last year a sign of what's to come?

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Thu, Aug 9 - vs Baltimore - 7:30 PM
  • Thu, Aug 16 - vs Cincinnati - 8:00 PM
  • Fri, Aug 24 - @ Miami - 7:30 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - @ Jacksonville - 6:30 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • Is Matt Ryan truly an elite quarterback? Matt Ryan has steadily improved his numbers and been given more responsibility in the huddle, but a tendency to sense pressure, even when the pocket is intact, is concerning. Can new OC Dirk Koetter instill Ryan with better pocket awareness? Does that ultimately matter to fantasy owners as long as Ryan is going to throw 550-600 times and amass rock solid regular season stats?

  • Is WR Julio Jones ready to overtake Roddy White? The Falcons gave up a lot of draft picks to secure Julio Jones' rights a year ago, and his rookie production (54 receptions for 959 yards and 8 touchdowns) was a strong initial return on the investment. Roddy White, who had 100 receptions last year, believes Jones is ready to become the team's top playmaker. Is that hyperbole, or can Jones add consistency to the explosiveness we saw a year ago?

  • Are the Falcons really going to reduce RB Michael Turner's workload? Michael Turner ran the ball 301 times for 1.340 yards (4.5 yards per rush) last year, yet fantasy owners are convinced he's on the steep decline. Is that a fair assessment, and if so will Turner justify his current ADP of RB19? Do the Falcons intend to use a committee approach, integrating Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling more frequently?

  • Can DC Mike Nolan fix the secondary? Nolan is an accomplished defensive mind who is probably an upgrade over Brian VanGorder who took the DC job at Auburn University. One of his tasks will be fixing a secondary that ranked 20th a year ago. Nolan is a proponent of using five defensive backs in base formations which will mean adding veteran CB Asante Samuel into the mix with returning starters Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson.

  • Reshaping the offensive line scheme and positional battles The Falcons hired Pat Hill the former Fresno State head coach to coach the offensive line. He and OC Koetter use a hybrid blocking scheme that will require the linemen to be equally comfortable with zone- and man-blocking concepts. The biggest question mark is Sam Baker, who hasn't lived up to expectations as the left tackle. Journeyman Will Svitek a 10-game starter last year could beat Baker out with a strong camp. At right guard, rookie Peter Konz should immediately pressure Garrett Reynolds for the role.

  • Who plays middle linebacker with Tatupu hurt? Second year Akeem Dent was planning on battling for a role in camp, but Lofa Tatupu's injury forces Dent into the driver's seat. If he's not up to the task, the Falcons can turn to veteran Mike Peterson who was re-signed just before the start of camp.
  • Carolina Panthers

  • Link: http://www.panthers.com/schedule/training-camp.html
  • Location: Wofford College (Spartanburg, SC)
  • Dates: July 27 August 15
  • Open to the public? YES (free of charge)
  • The Panthers head to Wofford College with reason for optimism as they build off a 6-10 record in Ron Rivera's first year. The offense is much further along than most expected, thanks to the record-breaking debut of Cam Newton. The defense Rivera's side of the ball has a steeper climb as it finished a meager 27th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed. Given last year's shortened preseason, this will be the first opportunity for the coaches to fully implement their systems.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Sat, Aug 11 - vs Houston - 7:00 PM
  • Fri, Aug 17 - vs Miami - 8:00 PM
  • Sun, Aug 26 - @ NY Jets - 8:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - @ Pittsburgh - 7:30 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • What can Cam Newton do for an encore? Accumulating 4,051 yards passing and 706 yards rushing to go along with 35 total touchdowns is a mind-boggling accomplishment for any quarterback, much less a rookie. Expectations are enormous for Newton in his second season, and fantasy owners are drafting him as a top 5 option. While history argues against a repeat of his rushing totals, it's not at all unreasonable to expect Newton to become a more efficient, accurate passer.

  • Who emerges alongside WR Steve Smith? Cam Newton needs more weapons in the passing game, and training camp will give Brandon LaFell, David Gettis and Louis Murphy the opportunity to make their cases.

  • Insight into the planned splits between RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart DeAngelo Williams was signed to a huge extension, and then relegated to a part-time role. Neither he nor Jonathan Stewart was consistent enough to rely on, particularly with Cam Newton rushing for 14 scores. As if that weren't complicated enough, the Panthers signed Mike Tolbert an excellent short yardage back in free agency. Will either Williams or Stewart be given enough touches to warrant top 20 fantasy consideration?

  • Is TE Greg Olsen being unduly discounted? Greg Olsen "only" caught 45 receptions for 540 yards and 5 touchdowns last year which may explain why he's being drafted as the 17th tight end off the board. But Olsen is talented, in his prime and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is a TE coach by background. He coached the University of Miami tight ends and was credited with Antonio Gates' development in San Diego.

  • Can the Panthers have any luck when it comes to the linebackers? The Panthers porous defense was as much about injuries as it was problems with the scheme. Can Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and James Anderson all stay healthy for once? Can rookie Luke Kuechly step into the lineup immediately and make a difference?

  • Cementing the offensive line The Panthers have given up on Jeff Otah, who missed the majority of the last two seasons; they've traded him to the New York Jets on the eve of camp. Byron Bell started 12 games as a rookie, and should provide stability on the right side. Left tackle (Jordan Gross) and center (Ryan Kalil) are locks, while the guard spots will come down to a camp battle between Geoff Hangartner, rookie Amini Silatolu and possibly Bryant Browning.

  • PKs Olindo Mare vs. Justin Medlock The Panthers offense is going to put points on the board, so whichever PK wins the job has fantasy value.
  • New Orleans Saints

  • Link: http://www.neworleanssaints.com/news-and-events/article-1/Saints-Announce-2012-Training-Camp-Schedule/
  • Location: Saints Practice Facility (Metairie, LA)
  • Dates: July 24 August 16
  • Open to the public? YES (free of charge)
  • The Saints had an offseason to forget including the "BountyGate" scandal and a protracted hold out from quarterback Drew Brees. The good news is Brees is under contract in time for the start of camp. The bad news is the Saints are without their GM and head coach, not to mention a number of suspended players. Can the Saints use the offseason as a rallying point, or will it lead to divisiveness and distraction? We'll find out soon enough as New Orleans will play against the Cardinals in the Hall of Fame game on August 5th.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Sun, Aug 5 - vs Arizona - 8:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 9 - @ New England - 7:30 PM
  • Fri, Aug 17 - vs Jacksonville - 8:00 PM
  • Sat, Aug 25 - vs Houston - 8:00 PM
  • Thu, Aug 30 - @ Tennessee - 7:00 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • Sorting out the leadership We know Sean Payton won't be around, and we know Joe Vitt will be the head coach for the final 10 games of the season. But how will the Saints handle the first six weeks of the season? OC Pete Carmichael called plays successfully last year while Payton recovered from surgery, and should be comfortable in the role. Defensively, will the Saints let new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo handle the play-calling?

  • Clues to the RB roles Mark Ingram fell well short of our lofty expectations for him, and had dealt with a knee injury this offseason. He needs a strong camp to regain fantasy relevance. Darren Sproles was a top tier fantasy option (particularly in PPR leagues) but is no bet to get a heavier workload, particularly as a runner. Pierre Thomas always produces when given the opportunity, but the Saints always seem to be in search of his replacement. Will the interim coaches be more predictable in the way they plan on using the RB stable?

  • Right tackle battle (Strief vs. Brown) The Saints have one major question mark on the offensive line as Zach Strief tries to displace Charles Brown. Brown likely hold onto the job, but Strief gave him all he could handle last offseason.

  • Fixing the secondary The Saints Achilles heel was a secondary that gave up the 3rd most passing yards and only created nine interceptions last season. New coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will need to use technique and scheme to change their fate, as the roster underwent very little turnover in the defensive backfield.

  • New linebacking corps Jonathan Vilma's suspension aside, the Saints were already committed to revamping the linebacking corps and could start three new players this year depending on whether Chris Chamberlain can displace Scott Shanle. Free agents Curtis Lofton (MLB) and David Hawthorne (WLB) are almost certainly in line to start.

  • Kicker battle Garrett Hartley has been brilliant at times, but has also struggled to stay healthy. John Kasay (42 years old) will attempt to defy Father Time for another season.
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Link: http://www.buccaneers.com/news/training-camp-news.html
  • Location: One Buccaneer Place (Tampa Bay, FL)
  • Dates: July 27 August 16
  • Open to the public? YES (free of charge)
  • Tampa Bay is hoping to rebound from a disastrous (4-12) season that cost Raheem Morris and most of his staff their jobs. New head coach Greg Schiano has a reputation as a hard-nosed disciplinarian the polar opposite of Morris' player-friendly approach. Schiano and his coordinators Mike Sullivan and Bill Sheridan have their work cut out for them it's about re-shaping the culture of one of the league's youngest teams.

    Preseason Game Schedule

  • Fri, Aug 10 - @ Miami - 7:30 PM
  • Fri, Aug 17 - vs Tennessee - 7:30 PM
  • Fri, Aug 24 - vs New England - 7:30 PM
  • Wed, Aug 29 - @ Washington - 7:30 PM
  • What We're Watching

  • Can Greg Schiano embrace the pro game? Schiano was a well-regarded collegiate head coach, but the Bucs decision to hire him away from Rutgers surprised many. Can Schiano adapt to the pro game, where old line, hard-nosed tactics have a way of flaming out quickly? He's already traded away Kellen Winslow, who complained about his tactics was Winslow a bad seed or does that hint at a culture clash?

  • Will the real Josh Freeman please stand up? Is Josh Freeman the mobile, efficient quarterback that finished QB7 in 2010, or is he last year's erratic, turnover prone passer who finished a modest QB17? Fantasy owners are betting on the latter (ADP of QB16), but it would be foolish to completely write off Freeman. By all accounts he's a hard worker without character concerns, and his mobility can make up for non-elite passing numbers. Freeman forced the ball too much last year, but if he shows a willingness to trust his teammates and coaches more in camp, he could present compelling value.

  • RBs Doug Martin vs. LeGarrette Blount Rookie 1st rounder Doug Martin was the choice of the new Bucs regime, and has all the tools to be an every down back. Combine that with Schiano's desire for a workhorse (he's not a believer in a committee approach), and it's understandable that Martin has an ADP of RB18. But Blount is not without ability, and the Bucs want to be a run heavy team. Pay close attention in camp to see if the coaches carve out defined roles for both Blount and Martin.

  • Can WR Mike Williams retain value with Vincent Jackson aboard? Mike Williams caught 68 passes for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie, and many expected him to emerge as a top flight #1 receiver in 2011. It didn't happen and now the Bucs have signed Vincent Jackson to a huge contract. Is Williams head on straight? If he can handle the more rigorous, disciplined culture, he may ultimately benefit from playing against opposing defenses #2 corners. But Williams has to be a model citizen in camp to bet on him as a fantasy sleeper.

  • Will the TE be relevant offensively? Kellen Winslow was traded away, and the team signed 33-year old Dallas Clark. Fantasy owners are speculating on Clark as a late round backup (TE21), but that might be the wrong approach. 2nd year Luke Stocker has been praised left and right by the offensive coaches, and could be the starter, or at least the more fantasy relevant option.

  • Can the defense get fixed in one season? The Bucs have used a lot of high draft picks on defense in recent years without much to show for it. Tampa ranked dead last in points allowed and 30th in yards allowed in 2011. Schiano, DC Bill Sheridan and assistant head coach Butch Davis are keeping the 4-3 defense in place, but changing the underlying gap responsibilities and blitz packages. They're also going to mix coverage schemes (no more Tampa-2 as a default). Will the additions of safety Mark Barron and OLB Lavonte David be enough?
  • Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to wood@footballguys.com.

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