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Preseason Watch List: NFC South

A detailed look at the key questions facing each team in the preseason

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are set to begin training camp on July 25th, spending the preseason at their Flowery Branch headquarters for the ninth consecutive year. Coming off an impressive 13-3 season, the Falcons finished in the top 10 in both points scored and points allowed. With the coaching staff intact and the majority of the roster returning, the team will focus on plugging the few holes left on their quest for a Super Bowl -- namely a rushing offense that ranked 29th in yards and yards per attempt and a defense that allowed nearly 6,000 yards to its opponents. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/8 -- Cincinnati (8:00 ET)
  • 8/15 -- @Baltimore (7:30 ET)
  • 8/24 -- @Tennessee (8:00 ET)
  • 8/29 -- Jacksonville (7:30 ET)

What We're Watching

  • How much does Steven Jackson have left in the tank? -- Michael Turner may have been a top 20 fantasy running back last year, but he was largely ineffective (3.6 yards per rush) other than as a goal-line runner. Jacquizz Rodgers wasn't much better (3.9 yards per rush), which is why Atlanta prioritized the acquisition of Steven Jackson. Jackson turns 30 this year but remains in phenomental shape. Is he capable of elevating his game? He only averaged 4.1 yards per rush last year and hasn't scored double digit TDs since 2006 -- but he's playing for a contender now with a much better offensive line. 
  • Who's backing up Matt Ryan? -- Luke McCown is gone which leaves either 2nd year Dominique Davis or rookie Sean Renfree as the next man up in case of a Matt Ryan injury. 
  • Replacing Clabo and McClure -- Center Todd McClure (194 starts) and RT Tyson Clabo (100 starts) have been fixtures on the Falcons offensive line, and Atlanta needs to find their replacements in camp if another deep playoff run is to come to fruition. Peter Konz, last year's 2nd round pick, is the favorite to replace McClure, while Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes should wage a spirited battle at right tackle. 
  • Are the rookie corners ready to contribute? -- The Falcons drafted cornerbacks in the first (Desmond Trufant) and second (Robert Alford) round in hopes of improving a pass defense that ranked 23rd, and Atlanta will give them both an opportunity to earn key roles right from the start playing alongside veteran Asante Samuel. 
  • Can Osi Umenyiora be a difference maker? -- Atlanta made no attempt to re-sign John Abraham (10 sacks, 33 tackles) in favor of Osi Umenyiora (6 sacks, 27 tackles) and the onus will be on the former Giant to invigorate a moribund pass rush. Is Umenyiora capable of being an impact defender at this point in his career? 

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers return to Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina looking to build off their late season momentum; Carolina won five of its last six games after starting the year 2-8. Offensively the Panthers will be focused on getting their key offensive contributors healthy while also integrating the changes new OC Mike Shula has in mind. Defensively head coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott must integrate compelling new additions to the front seven in the hopes of creating a playoff-caliber defense. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/09 -- Chicago (8:00 ET)
  • 8/15 -- @Philadelphia (7:30 ET)
  • 8/22 -- @Baltimore (8:00 ET)
  • 8/29 -- Pittsburgh (7:30 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Can Mike Shula replicate Rob Chudzinski's success? -- Mike Shula last called an NFL game in 1999, but the Panthers promoted Shula to replace Rob Chudzinski (who took the Browns head coaching job). Shula has promised to simplify the terminology, speed up the pace, and to ratchet back the reliance on the read-option. Is Shula a capable replacement or was this a hire of convenience? 
  • Will the Panthers ever find a competent WR2? -- Steve Smith continues to produce but the Panthers failed to meaningfully address the WR position again this offseason. Can Domenik Hixon stay healthy for once? Has Brandon LaFell reached his ceiling? 
  • What is going on with Jonathan Stewart? -- Stewart had ankle surgery this offseason and has been a non-factor throughout OTAs and mini-camp. It's unclear whether Stewart will be available at the start of camp. If he's unable to go, how far should fantasy owners drop him on their draft boards? Don't forget about DeAngelo Williams particularly if Stewart remains hobbled into August. 
  • Will Greg Olsen miss Rob Chudzinski? -- Greg Olsen is widely regarded as a top 8 fantasy TE this year, and based on last year (69 receptions for 843 yards and 5 TDs) that's hardly a stretch. Yet, Rob Chudzinski is a TE's best friend, having worked with the likes of Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow and Antonio Gates. Will Mike Shula be as creative in getting Olsen involved? 
  • How good is the defensive line? -- The Panthers added monster tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the draft, who should pair up meaningfully with the pass rushing trio of Dwan Edwards (6 sacks), Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks) and Greg Hardy (11 sacks). If everyone stays healthy, the Panthers line could be among the NFC's best. 
  • Can the Panthers get some good luck (and health) for the linebackers? -- Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are game-changing, impact defenders when healthy. Unfortunately they haven't been able to stay on the field together in years. But entering camp they both look ready for action and if paired with 2nd year star MLB Luke Kuechly, could be as potent a trio as we've seen in Carolina's history.
  • Will the secondary derail the front seven's improvement? -- The secondary has a LOT of questions, as Haruki Nakamura, Mike Mitchell, Charles Godfrey and D.J. Campbell all present less-than-stellar options at safety. Meanwhile undrafted free agent Robert Lester received 1st team reps in mini-camp. 

New Orleans Saints

The Saints report to training camp on July 25th and intend on re-inserting themselves into the playoff picture. After last offseason's Bountygate soap opera, this year's quiet offseason has to be a welcome thing for the ownership, coaches and players alike. Sean Payton returns to the helm of a team that finished 3rd in points and 2nd in yards in spite of his absence, but also finished near the top of the league in turnovers. The defense needs a complete makeover after finishing 31st in points allowed and 32nd in yards allowed; and boisterous Rob Ryan has been tasked with turning around the mess that Steve Spagnuolo created last year. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/9 -- Kansas City (8:00 ET)
  • 8/16 -- Oakland (8:00 ET)
  • 8/25 -- @Houston (4:00 ET)
  • 8/29 -- @Miami (7:30 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Replacing Jermon Bushrod -- Drew Brees' lost his left tackle to free agency, and it's vital a new starter emerges early in camp. Most expect Charles Brown to win the job, but the Saints will take hard looks at rookie Terron Armstead and reclamation project Jason Smith, as well. 
  • Pierre Thomas vs. Mark Ingram -- Mark Ingram is a fantasy habit many of us can't seem to quit, and yet Pierre Thomas has been the more effective player and received most of the 1st team reps in mini-camp and OTAs. Ingram needs a healthy, productive training camp in order to justify anything more than a late, end-of-roster draft ranking. 
  • Establishing the backup WR depth chart -- When a team throws for 5,000 yards and 40 TDs in consecutive seasons, it's important to understand the receiver depth chart beyond the starters. An injury to either Marques Colston or Lance Moore could mean instant fantasy relevance for the likes of Kenny Stills, Joseph Morgan, Nick Toon, Chris Givens and Courtney Roby. 
  • Monitoring Jimmy Graham's ankle -- Graham caught 85 passes for 982 yards and 9 touchdowns last year, but considers his season a disappointment. With the questions surrounding the Patriots tight ends, a healthy Jimmy Graham may rank among the most valuable fantasy commodities at any position. He insists his ankle is "almost" 100%, and if he makes it through the early weeks of camp without a setback you can expect Graham to be no later than a 2nd round pick in most leagues. 
  • Implementing Ryan's 3-4 defense -- The bad news for Saints fans is that Rob Ryan's reputation far exceeds his resume. In nine seasons as a defensive coordinator his teams have NEVER finished in the top 10 of points allowed nor finished with a winning record. The good news is that Ryan inherits the league's worst defense (the first team to allow more than 7,000 yards) and so even mediocrity might be enough to vault the Saints into Super Bowl contention. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

For the fifth consecutive season the Buccaneers will hold camp at One Buccaneer Place -- the team's headquarters. When the players report on July 25th, many new faces will greet them particularly in the secondary where All Pros Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson hope to fix a pass defense that ranked dead last in yards allowed (4,758) and 28th in passing touchdowns (30). On offense, OC Mike Sullivan needs to get more consistency out of QB Josh Freeman, while maintaining the ascendant play of skill players like Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Head coach Greg Schiano was unsatisfied with his team's 7-9 record in his first season, and thinks they have the pieces in place to compete for a playoff berth. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • 8/8 -- Baltimore (7:30 ET)
  • 8/16 -- @New England (8:00 ET)
  • 8/24 -- @Miami (7:30 ET)
  • 8/29 -- Washington (7:30 ET)

What We're Watching

  • Is Josh Freeman on notice? -- On one hand Josh Freeman threw for 4,000+ yards and 27 touchdowns last year. On the other hand he completed just 54.8% of his passes and threw 17 interceptions. Entering his contract year, Freeman's career is at a crossroads particularly considering Coach Schiano said he is "not against" rookie Mike Glennon winning the job. Glennon, in reality, is a long shot to displace Freeman in 2013, but Schiano's comments clearly show a lack of confidence in his current starter. 
  • What can Doug Martin do for an encore? -- Doug Martin was an all-purpose dynamo last year garnering 1,926 yards (3rd in the NFL) and 12 touchdowns. Can Martin elevate his game further and stake a claim on the top spot among fantasy players? 
  • Finding receiving threats beyond Jackson and Williams -- Vincent Jackson (72 for 1,384 yards and 8 TDs) and Mike Williams (63 receptions for 996 yards and 9 TDs) are entrenched but the Buccaneers need other players to step up in order to give the Bucs optionality in their formations. Luke Stocker (16 receptions) is the most seasoned returning tight end, and Tiquan Underwood (28 receptions) and Kevin Ogletree are listed as WR3 and WR4 entering camp. Are they dangerous enough to give the Bucs depth and allow for multiple receiver sets? 
  • Fixing the secondary -- Adding Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson is a tremendous way to try to fix one of the league's worst secondaries, which is to say nothing of talented 2nd rounder Johnathan Banks. Adding those three players to Mark Barron and Eric Wright should completely reshape the way opposing offenses attack the Tampa defense. 

More from Jason Wood:

On Second Thought: Defenses and Kickers - August 28
On Second Thought: Running Backs - August 28
On Second Thought: Tight Ends - August 28
On Second Thought: Quarterbacks - August 28
On Second Thought: Wide Receivers - August 28
What If Roddy White or Julio Jones Are Lost for the Season? - August 19
What If Robert Griffin III Is Lost for the Season? - August 19
What If Cecil Shorts Is Lost for the Season? - August 19
Player Spotlight: Philip Rivers - August 8
Player Spotlight: Jordan Cameron - August 7