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NFC South preview: Panthers aim for Super Bowl return

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Heading into the 2016 campaign, Around The NFL is taking a closer look at each division over the course of this week. Which storylines -- and players -- will define the coming months within each of the league's eight sectors? Check out the NFC South entry below.

Most significant changes from 2015

Atlanta Falcons: Offensive additions. The Falcons hope Matt Ryan can eliminate last year's ugly turnovers with the help of two new additions on offense: former Bengals wideout Mohamed Sanu and rugged Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, who defected from Cleveland. Atlanta's defense will save a big role for first-round rookie safety Keanu Neal, the hard-hitting, Kam Chancellor-like backstop who will miss a few weeks after undergoing a knee scope.

Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin returns. Josh Norman exits. The Panthers sliced up the league last season, carving out a 17-1 record before crumbling in Super Bowl 50. The defending NFC champions go into this campaign with most of their core still intact. Linebacker Luke Kuechly remains the All-Pro anchor of Carolina's nasty front seven, but shutdown cornerback Josh Norman is now in Washington, leaving the Panthers to groom rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley as starters. On offense, the healthy return of big-bodied receiver Kelvin Benjamin gives last year's MVP, Cam Newton, another juicy target across from the promising Devin Funchess.

New Orleans Saints: New WR for Brees. The Saints are keeping the band together after handing coach Sean Payton a fresh contract extension. Still a club that orbits around star quarterback Drew Brees, New Orleans is thrilled with rookie wideout Michael Thomas, whose strong preseason prompted Payton to call the pass-catcher a must-have fantasy pick. The team also hopes to get first-round interior lineman Sheldon Rankins back from a broken fibula later in the year -- his absence will be felt on a less-than-stellar defense.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Draft bulks up defense. The Bucs are happy with the progress and leadership of Jameis Winston, who used the offseason to shed pounds and dig deeper into new coach Dirk Koetter's playbook. Re-signing backfield workhorse Doug Martin was smart, while Tampa's improved pass rush has been helped by second-round end Noah Spence. The Bucs used their first-round selection on cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who is making a good first impression:

One player to watch from each team

Atlanta Falcons: Mohamed Sanu, wide receiver. Atlanta's passing game will continue to center around Julio Jones, but Sanu's success at the No. 2 role is key to Ryan erasing the memory of last year's down campaign.

Carolina Panthers: Devin Funchess, wide receiver. Panthers coach Ron Rivera gushed all offseason about Funchess, saying: "He's becoming such a good, young pro and understanding what it takes to be successful." Beat writers almost unanimously selected the second-year wideout along with second-year linebacker Shaq Thompson as Carolina's co-MVPs of camp.

New Orlean Saints: C.J. Spiller, running back. New Orleans hasn't given up on the second-year Saint, handing the veteran back plenty of first-team reps during last week's regular-season dress rehearsal. Perhaps we'll finally see him unleashed.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cameron Brate, tight end. The Bucs have plenty of young players in the development stage, but keep an eye on the third-year tight end. The former Harvard standout is growing into a favorite of Winston's. He had 23 catches for 288 yards and three TDs in 2015, and he'll look to build on that this fall.

What we'll be talking about at season's end

Nothing about Carolina was a fluke last season. This will be acknowledged as the Panthers rip through the South again en route to a fourth straight division title. Newton might not reach last year's white-hot totals, but he'll stay in the MVP discussion for a franchise that has proven its ability to draft and groom talent as well as any team east of the Arizona Cardinals.

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