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NFC South projected starters: Panthers set to repeat?

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With the NFL draft in the rearview mirror, Around The NFL will project starting lineups with tasty position battle nuggets for all 32 teams. The NFC South is below.

Carolina Panthers


Panthers Projected Starters

Offense

QB Cam Newton

RB Jonathan Stewart

WR1 Kelvin Benjamin

WR2 Ted Ginn

WR3 Devin Funchess

TE Greg Olsen

LT Michael Oher

LG Andrew Norwell

C Ryan Kalil

RG Trai Turner

RT Mike Remmers

Defense

DE Charles Johnson

DT Kawann Short

DT Star Lotulelei

DE Kony Ealy

OLB Thomas Davis

MLB Luke Kuechly

OLB Shaq Thompson

CB1 Bene' Benwikere

CB2 Robert McClain

FS Kurt Coleman

SS Tre Boston

» The NFC champs will roll out an almost identical roster to the one they employed in the Super Bowl. The glaring change is Josh Norman no longer anchoring the secondary. I don't have any rookies slated to start at the moment, which is a great sign for the Panthers' chances of repeating. Getting Kelvin Benjamin back in the lineup in it of itself is a huge boost to Cam Newton.

» Brandon Boykin will play the slot corner. Robert McClain was picked on heavily opposite Norman last year, but is likely to keep his starting spot -- at least until the rookies have some seasoning. James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez should all get a chance to steal playing time after the first month, especially if offenses continue to take advantage of McClain. This all assumes Bene' Benwikere will be fully healthy after a broken leg ended his 2015 campaign.

» Dave Gettleman has been bullish about Mike Remmers after a disastrous Super Bowl. Daryl Williams will have to thoroughly beat out Remmers in training camp to leap the incumbent.

» Mike Tolbert is essentially a starter. The bowling ball fullback should spell Stewart between the tackles with Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne as scat backs. If injures to J-Stew crop up, it could spell trouble.

» There isn't a better defensive front seven in the NFL. The Panthers boast the best sideline-to-sideline tackling linebacker trio in the NFL in Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson -- expect Shaq to play an even bigger role this season. First-round defensive tackle Vernon Butler seems like a luxury in his first year, giving Carolina a dominant rotation. Paul Soliai could even play a role if injures crop up. SO. MANY. HOG. MOLLIES.

Atlanta Falcons


Falcons Projected Starters

Offense

QB Matt Ryan

RB Devonta Freeman

WR1 Julio Jones

WR2 Mohamed Sanu

WR3 Justin Hardy

TE Jacob Tamme

LT Jake Matthews

LG Andy Levitre

C Alex Mack

RG Chris Chester

RT Ryan Schraeder

Defense

DE Vic Beasley

DT Ra'Shede Hageman

DT Grady Jarrett

DE Derrick Shelby

OLB Philip Wheeler

MLB Deion Jones

OLB Brooks Reed

CB1 Desmond Trufant

CB2 Robert Alford

S Keanu Neal

S Ricardo Allen

» The lack of a third wideout is a theme in the NFC South. Justin Hardy doesn't instill confidence after just 21 catches as a rookie. Mohamed Sanu is a decent second fiddle, but the Falcons' passing game is shaping up to be Julio Jones-or-bust once again.

» Nothing against Jacob Tamme, who has found his niche in the NFL, but I expect rookie Austin Hooper to play a major role in the passing game from the tight end spot, even if he doesn't leap into the starting gig.

» Second-round pick Deion Jones is on the small side, but I'm sliding him right into the Falcons' starting lineup, because the other options made me want to yak on my computer screen. Jones should provide much-needed speed to Atlanta linebacker corps.

» Speaking of linebackers, it's interesting the team's official website now lists Vic Beasley as an OLB. Given that he's a candidate to break out rushing the passer this season, I don't expect coach Dan Quinn to drop him in coverage. When getting to the quarterback is your biggest need, you don't put your most talented rusher in space.

» The Falcons boosted the defensive front this offseason and rookie safety Keanu Neal should start in the secodary, but this group still appears wanting looking at it on paper. (Yes, Mr. Internet Troll, I'm fully aware NFL games aren't played on paper; save your angry keystrokes.)

New Orleans Saints


Saints Projected Starters

Offense

QB Drew Brees

RB Mark Ingram

WR1 Brandin Cooks

WR2 Michael Thomas

WR3 Willie Snead

TE Coby Fleener

LT Terron Armstead

LG Tim Lelito

C Max Unger

RG Andrus Peat

RT Zach Strief

Defense

DE Cameron Jordan

NT John Jenkins

DT Sheldon Rankins

DE Hau'oli Kikaha

OLB Dannell Ellerbe

MLB James Laurinaitis

OLB Stephone Anthony

CB1 Delvin Breaux

CB2 Keenan Lewis

S Kenny Vaccaro

S Jairus Byrd

» Where Andrus Peat will play this season remains a question entering the summer. At this stage I'm sliding him into guard, with the Saints hoping to eke out one more year of Strief. New Orleans doesn't have a better option at guard in the present. Getting the five best blockers in front of Drew Brees is vital, even if Peat's future is at right tackle.

» The Saints hope rookie wideout Michael Thomas can immediately fill the Marques Colston role. With a wide radius, Thomas should be an immediate red-zone threat.

» I'm not buying any Saints tight end hype this year. Coby Fleener didn't pop in Indy and Josh Hill has been more projection than production. Benjamin Watson's 2015 season feels like less evidence Fleener and Hill will have bust-out seasons and more like an anomaly predicated on a quarterback's trust of a seasoned vet.

» I'm not a huge James Laurinaitis fan, but his signing gives the Saints flexibility to reshuffle the linebacker corps, pushing Stephon Anthony to the outside. It also allows Hau'oli Kikaha to move to defensive end. He'll be undersized as a pass rusher, but as a rookie Kikaha was much better getting after the quarterback than dropping in coverage. The Saints have a need at pass rusher and shifting Kikaha to end could be an in-house solution.

» Nick Fairley has proven he's best deployed a situational pass rusher. Rookie Sheldon Rankins should beat him out for a starting gig in the defensive tackle rotation.

» I'm not ready to snipe Jairus Byrd yet. Vonn Bell might possess some of the same characteristics, but a team devoid of defensive talent isn't likely to toss aside potential playmakers -- especially ones who offer no cap relief if cut. We could see some three-safety sets with Kenny Vaccarro playing a hybrid role if Bell forces his way onto the field.

» What will the backfield look like behind Mark Ingram? Tim Hightower was a revelation late last season, but can he be counted on for a full season? C.J. Spiller was a huge disappointment after major hype. Perhaps rookie Daniel Lasco could supplant Spiller as a cheaper satellite back.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers


Buccaneers Projected Starters

Offense

QB Jameis Winston

RB Doug Martin

WR1 Mike Evans

WR2 Vincent Jackson

TE1 Austin Seferian-Jenkins

TE2 Cameron Brate

LT Donovan Smith

LG J.R. Sweezy

C Joe Hawley

RG Ali Marpet

RT Demar Dotson

Defense

DE Noah Spence

DT Gerald McCoy

DT Akeem Spence

DE Robert Ayers

OLB Lavonte David

MLB Kwon Alexander

OLB Daryl Smith

CB1 Brent Grimes

CB2 Alterraun Verner

S Chris Conte

S Bradley McDougald

» The third wideout spot behind Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson remains unaddressed. Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cameron Brate offer a solid pass-catch tight end duo -- health permitting -- and better options in space than the spare-part receivers on the roster. I'd like to see Charles Sims motion to the slot more to help bridge the gap in the receiving corps for Winston.

» First-round pick Vernon Hargreaves will get a chance to earn a starting gig, but corners notoriously struggle out of the gate. He should push Alterraun Verner and Brent Grimes at least by mid season and perhaps Jonathan Banks off the roster.

» Chris Conte is a subpar safety, but unless rookie Ryan Smith lights the world on fire in training camp, he's the best option currently. Perhaps defensive coordinator Mike Smith will utilize more three corner sets, given his depth at cornerback and talent-lacking safeties.

» Could the Bucs run more 3-4 fronts in 2016? The move would get rookie Noah Spence and Lavonte David on the edge rushing the passer, with Gerald McCoy and Robert Ayers pushing from defensive end spots. Kwon Alexander and Daryl Smith would then clean up the middle. Tampa has struggled to get to the quarterback in recent year, necessitating creativity with the front seven.

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