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What We Learned at NFC South Training Camps

Jonathan Jones

The MMQB team made its way around the nation visiting NFL training camps this preseason. Up today we have a few observations and takeaways from visiting the NFC South teams.

ATLANTA FALCONS

• Holy protection issues, Batman! The Falcons offensive line looked like a sieve in their Week 2 preseason tilt with the Jets when New York sacked Matt Ryan five times and hit him many more. Would it surprise you that Gregg Williams was scheming a little more than most in the second week of the preseason? Of course not. Will the Falcons OL be this bad throughout the year? Surely not. But there has been concern about the right tackle position since rookie Kaleb McGary had heart surgery and will surely miss the start of the season. In his stead is Ty Sambrailo, who has done little to inspire confidence at the spot but is the Falcons’ only option. Atlanta reworked its offensive line this offseason and it’ll take some time for them to gel, but Ryan has to get better protecting immediately if he is to continue his MVP-caliber play from last season.

• For my money the Falcons have the top receiving group in the league. Julio Jones is the best in the world and will soon be paid like it. Calvin Ridley is primed for a big sophomore campaign that will see him take over the No. 2 position from Mohamed Sanu if he hasn’t already. It’s still difficult to fathom why the rest of the NFL let him fall to the Falcons at No. 26 overall in last year’s draft.

• The Curious Case of Vic Beasley continues. No one expects Beasley to be with the Falcons beyond this season after two consecutive down years and playing on a fifth-year option that you’d be hard-pressed to find another team to pay. Beasley has shown up a bit this preseason so far, and whether he’s auditioning for a long-term deal with the Falcons (that won’t come) or for a deal with another team (that surely will come next March), this is a big year for the former Clemson standout. His 15 1/2 sacks from 2016 are more than his other three seasons combined, and the Falcons have exercised every bit of patience with the pass rusher. We’ll see if he can get it back together for this contract year.

• Can Atlanta stay healthy? The Falcons suffered injury after injury last year, especially on the defensive side. Atlanta has contractually locked up its defensive core for years to come, and I’m excited to see what Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Desmond Trufant, Grady Jarrett, De’Vondre Campbell and Takk McKinley can do together as a healthy unit. — Jonathan Jones

CAROLINA PANTHERS

• The Panthers changed from a base 4–3 to a 3–4 defense and let me tell you, way more was made of that this offseason than should have been. The team will be in nickel most of the time anyway, but enough former Panthers coaches are elsewhere that it was time to change some things up. A 3–4 also gets with where the current NFL is (or more specifically, what sort of defensive players are coming out of college now), and I have no doubts Luke Kuechly will continue his All-World play in the middle of the defense.

• It took Carolina almost a year but the Panthers have mostly figured out the safety position. Obviously they added Eric Reid and hoped they could get by at the other safety spot, but the Panthers learned early in camp that wouldn’t be the case. A reunion with Tre Boston probably should have happened in March but he’s back in Carolina now, and the weak link in the Panthers defense has been taken care of.

• I don’t play fantasy but I imagine the offensive firepower on this team must be a dream for fantasy players. Everything you’ve seen or heard about Curtis Samuel’s preseason is true. D.J. Moore had a solid camp in his own right, but seemingly every day Samuel was linking up for a 40-plus-yard pass from Cam Newton. I can’t tell who will be the leading receiver on the team between the two, but there’s no doubt in mind that Samuel will lead the team in explosive plays.

• Then there’s Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara should, in my eyes, have equal odds to hit the 1,000-rushing and 1,000-receiving marks this season. McCaffrey packed on more muscle in the offseason and I would expect him, if healthy, to play somewhere close to 99% of the competitive offensive snaps because the drop-off from him to the No. 2 running back (and the Panthers don’t know who that is just yet) is dramatic.

• So, can Newton stay healthy? Because none of this matters if not. The Panthers tried to upgrade the backup quarterback position by drafting Will Grier to compete with Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke for the No. 2 spot. The results have, so far, been disappointing, and that was highlight in an exhibition full of lowlights against the Bills last week. If Newton’s throwing shoulder is finally right and can make it through a 17-week season plus postseason, the Panthers absolutely have the talent and coaching to get back to the playoffs. But if this last surgery didn’t fix the issue and the arm strength wanes midway through the year like it did last season—or if his foot, which he injured in the team’s third exhibition game against the Patriots, proves to be a real issue—the Panthers don’t have a good option to keep them afloat into the winter. — JJ

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

• New Orleans has a vision for TE Jared Cook, and the team is really excited about him. So long as Latavius Murray stays healthy and can come close to filling the void left by Mark Ingram, the Saints are good at the skill spots. A deep sleeper to watch: Undrafted free agent WR Emmanuel Butler.

• Marshon Lattimore—who had an uneven camp last summer, leading to a little bit of a sophomore slump—has bounced back. And the Saints are cautiously optimistic in what they are seeing from Eli Apple, which should make all the difference for a defense that is loaded with talent.

• Add the above to Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams, and this should be a top-five secondary, with potential to be the best in the league. Another plus? New Orleans is one of the few teams in the NFL with true depth at defensive back. Rookies Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquan Hampton have shined early.

• Second-round pick Erik McCoy—viewed by the Saints as a first-round talent (and they weren’t the only ones thinking that)—is going to replace Max Unger at center, probably from Day 1. He's been solid since the pads went on. That said, the Saints want to develop some depth along the offensive line.

• On defense, if there’s a roster question, it might be depth at linebacker. The staff has actually been pretty pleased with its DT spot, even with Sheldon Rankins shelved (the hope is they get him back in the first month of the season). Cuts are going to be tough there. — Albert Breer

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

• The WR group has a chance to be really good. Mike Evans has focused on his conditioning, so he can maintain his level in a downfield-focused offense, and that showed in training camp. Chris Godwin’s a really good fit for Bruce Arians’s scheme. And Breshad Perriman has been a nice surprise on the offense.

• The staff has worked hard to restore RB Ronald Jones’s confidence, and RBs coach Todd McNair, who has been out of football since 2010, has been key there. Jones has had a good camp as a result. Last year, once Jones lost his confidence, the whole season got away from him.

Likewise, CBs Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis (who also have underachieved some) have turned in promising summers. The team spent two top-100 picks on CBs (Sean Bunting, Jamel Dean), and it sure looks that might've lit a fire under Hargreaves and Davis.

• Fourth-year DE Carl Nassib is suddenly an important piece in Todd Bowles’s new scheme, with uncertainty remaining on if/when Jason Pierre-Paul is going to be ready. Last year’s Hard Knocks star has steadily improved since the Bucs claimed him off waivers.

• As is the case with a whole bunch of teams, offensive line is an area to watch for Tampa, particularly with how Arians likes to run his offense. The Buccaneers feel good about their starters, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them work the waiver wire this month to find more depth. — AB

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