Preseason Watch List: NFC South

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

ATLANTA FALCONS

Two years after going 13-3, the Falcons fired coach Mike Smith after back-to-back losing seasons. Dan Quinn takes over after doing a masterful job running the Seattle Seahawks defense, and will have his hands full (alongside Richard Smith) in rebuilding a unit that finished 27th in points allowed. The offense is in better hands (12th in points) but stands a good chance of returning to Top 10 status if new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan can establish a reliable running game (24th in yards in 2014). 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 14 -- Tennessee 7:00 pm
  • Aug 21 -- @N.Y. Jets 7:30 pm
  • Aug 29 -- @Miami 7:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Baltimore 7:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Installing the new systems -- Dan Quinn's system isn't ground-breaking on the surface. His teams almost exclusively run a base 4-3 defense with Cover-2 and Cover-3 coverage. What sets Quinn apart is his ability to optimize his personnel and take big chances in the biggest moments of the game. While a total turnaround of the defense won't happen in the first year (the personnel isn't close to what Seattle has), improvement is a given. On offense, Kyle Shanahan has a proven ability to craft a balanced offense with a productive ground game. He'll have to get the offensive line acclimated to his zone-blocking scheme. 
  • Freeman vs. Coleman -- Devonta Freeman failed to take the reins from Steven Jackson last year, but he has a chance to thrive under Shanahan's watch. His success ultimately depends on whether rookie 3rd rounder Tevin Coleman can impress his new coaches enough to earn a major role this year. Both running backs are dealing with early camp hamstring injuries right now. It's easy to assume the duo will form a committee but Shanahan prefers using one lead back. If either young player impresses in the preseason, his fantasy value could skyrocket.
  • Does Roddy White still have gas in the tank? -- White is two years removed from a 1,000-yard season, but last year's 80 receptions for 921 yards and 7 touchdowns was impressive considering it came in 14 games. A lot of people are writing White off but he's healthy and remains a sure-handed, trusted target for Matt Ryan. If White looks sharp in the early preseason, he makes a compelling option in the middle rounds of drafts.
  • Will the tight end factor into the offense? -- The thought that Levine Toilolo could step into Tony Gonzalez' massive shoes was a pipe dream from the start; he's only suited as a blocking back. The Falcons added Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki in free agency; with Tamme being the likely starter. Tamme has never had more than four touchdowns in a season, and has two reasonably productive years in seven. Expectations should be tempered, regardless of his opportunity for major snaps.
  • How long until Vic Beasley Jr wins a starting spot? -- The Falcons are in desperate need of disruptive pass rushers and that's why they selected Vic Beasley Jr in the 1st round of the draft. Yet, Beasley won't be handed the full-time job as the Falcons have veterans Brooks Reed and Justin Durant slated to start.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Carolina enters training camp as the two-time defending NFC South champions, but they have a lot more questions to answer after last season's tumultuous season. The Panthers were 3-8-1 entering December and won their final four games to win the division by default; it's rare for a division winner to have a losing record. The team finished in the bottom half offensively (19th in points) AND defensively (21st in points allowed), and is counting on better health and a few key offseason additions to turn things around.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 14 -- @Buffalo 7:00 pm
  • Aug 22 -- Miami 7:00 pm
  • Aug 28 -- New England 7:30 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Pittsburgh 7:30 pm

What We're Watching

  • All eyes on Michael Oher  -- The Panthers decision to hand over the left tackle position to Michael Oher is one of the league's most controversial personnel moves of the offseason. Oher has looked terrible at right tackle the last two seasons (on two different teams) and yet the Panthers are counting on him to solidify the most important position on the line.
  • Can Jonathan Stewart finally have a healthy season? -- DeAngelo Williams is a Steeler, and Stewart has the clear #1 position for the first time in his career. His injury history is well documented but he looked great last year once he took over the lead role. If healthy, he's capable of top tier fantasy production.
  • Who is the #2 receiver? -- The Panthers selected Devin Funchess in the 2nd round of the draft, but he's a raw prospect and better suited to a backup role as a rookie. Veteran Jerricho Cotchery, Tedd Ginn, Corey Brown and Jarrett Boykin all have designs on the spot opposite Kelvin Benjamin.
  • Can Shaq Thompson play the Will? -- Thompson was an ultra-productive collegiate defender but is the ultimate 'tweener as he's considered by many too small (228 lbs.) to play linebacker but lacks the lateral quickness and speed to play safety. The Panthers disagree and have him penciled in as the starting weakside linebacker. If Thompson struggles in the preseason, the team will be back to square one.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The Saints took a step back in 2014 finishing 7-9 and failing to make the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. A lot of people want to hang that on the offense but the statistics say otherwise. When the Saints went 11-5 in 2013, they finished 10th in points scored and 4th in yards. Last year the Saints finished 1st in yards and 9th in points scored. The real downfall came from a defense that went from 4th overall in 2013 to 28th overall last year. As the Saints get training camp underway, it's clear the plan is to transition to more balance offense, with the belief that having better time of position will let the defense rest and not be overexposed. It worked for the Cowboys last year, so why not give it a try in N'awlins?

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 13 -- @Baltimore 7:30 pm
  • Aug 22 -- New England 7:30 pm
  • Aug 30 -- Houston 4:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Green Bay 7:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Are the Saints genuinely committed to the ground game? -- This offseason the Saints traded away Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, re-signed Mark Ingram II, brought in C.J. Spiller and traded for center Max Unger. Those are clear signs that Sean Payton isn't just posturing when he talks about a more balance attack. That said, we need to see evidence of that in the preseason before we can completely buy in.
  • Are there enough targets for Drew Brees? -- The Saints loss a massive number of targets from last year's team including Graham, Stills, Pierre Thomas and Travis Cadaret. Brandin Cooks is an ascendant player ready to gobble up 125-150 targets, and Marques Colston will haul in his fair share. But in order for the Saints to approximate their usual passing numbers, a few players are going to have to step up and surprise. Is Nick Toon finally ready to break out? What about Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones?
  • How will the running back workloads be split? -- The consensus view is that Mark Ingram II handles the first two downs and C.J. Spiller handles the obvious passing situations. But Sean Payton is anything but obvious and it suits the team more if all the backs can be used interchangeably. If we get hints in the preseason that Spiller will get a chance to run the ball as well as his certain role in the passing game, both Ingram and Spiller could be viable fantasy starters.
  • Integrating the new secondary -- Jairus Byrd was 2014's most coveted free agent safety, but his first year in New Orleans was a bust (three poor games followed by a season-ending injury). When healthy, Byrd is the attacking, ball hawk this defense needs to rebound. On the corners, New Orleans added Brandon Browner -- who happened to start for the last two Super Bowl winners. Thanks to the surprising play of Delvin Breaux, he's solidly in the mix for the nickel spot versus Kyle Wilson. As if that weren't enough, the Saints added P.J. Williams and Damian Swann in the draft.
  • Is Josh Hill really a fantasy commodity? -- Josh Hill is a pure pass-catching tight end and his success in limited snaps last year has led many to expect Hill to break out in 2015. Yet, the team has given indications to the contrary by bringing a number of veterans in for workouts and giving Ben Watson a lot of snaps with the first team. 

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 

Lovie Smith's first season in Tampa Bay was disastrous. Hired to repair a team that went 4-12 in 2013, Smith ended up guiding the Buccaneers to a league-worst 2-14 record. Offensively, the team finished new the bottom of the league (29th in points, 30th in yards) thanks to a missing-in-action offensive coordinator, terrible quarterbacking and a subpar offensive line. Dirk Koetter was hired to fix the offense, and he'll have three highly regarded rookies to help the process: quarterback Jameis Winston, tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet. On defense, neither Smith nor Leslie Frazier could improve a moribund unit (25th in points allowed, 25th in yards allowed). 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 15 -- @Minnesota 8:00 pm
  • Aug 24 -- Cincinnati 8:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- Cleveland 7:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Miami 7:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Implementing Dirk Koetter's system -- Koetter is a big step forward for Tampa's offense. He turned the Atlanta Falcons passing attack into one of the league's better units and worked wonders with Matt Ryan in spite of mediocre line play. He'll be asked to do the same thing with Winston and, like in Atlanta, he'll have two talented receivers at his disposal (Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson). Koetter will use a lot of no-huddle and likes to create mismatches based on defensive play-calling tendencies.
  • Handing Winston the reins -- Winston will start immediately and will get plenty of preseason game action as a result. If Winston shows a strong command of Koetter's offense, fantasy owners will warm up to him as a viable QB2 late in drafts.
  • Has Doug Martin returned to form? -- After a dominant rookie season (1,926 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns), Martin missed 10 games in 2013 and then looked washed up in 2014 (3.7 yards per rush). Many thought the new coaching staff would give Charles Sims a shot, but the coaches made it clear they expect Martin to be the team's workhorse again. If Martin looks good in camp, expect his ADP to shoot higher. Right now he's one of the better bargains in the 7th or 8th round.
  • Is Austin Sefarian-Jenkins a breakout candidate? -- At 6'5", 262 lbs, Sefarian-Jenkins provides Winston with a massive target, particularly in intermediate routes and the red zone. He looked good-but-not-great as a rookie but missed the final seven games of the season. Is he the next breakout fantasy star at his position? We'll need to see evidence of that in the preseason to buy into the hype.
  • Can the veteran additions change the defense's complexion? -- The Bucs focused on the offense during the draft, which left free agency as the tonic for what ails the defense. Veterans Henry Melton, George Johnson, Bruce Carter and Chris Conte will be asked to play major snaps -- but are any really difference makers?

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