Projected Starters  

 

NFC South projected starters: No Super Bowl hangover in Atlanta

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Gregg Rosenthal will project post-draft starting lineups for all 32 teams with 100 percent accuracy or your money back.

Atlanta Falcons

QB: Matt Ryan
RB: Devonta Freeman
WR: Julio Jones
WR: Mohamed Sanu
WR: Taylor Gabriel
TE: Austin Hooper
LT: Jake Matthews
LG: Andy Levitre
C: Alex Mack
RG: Wes Schweitzer
RT: Ryan Schraeder

DE: Vic Beasley Jr.
DT: Dontari Poe
DT: Grady Jarrett
DE: Adrian Clayborn
OLB: Duke Riley
MLB: Deion Jones
OLB: De'Vondre Campbell
CB: Desmond Trufant
CB: Robert Alford
S: Keanu Neal
S: Ricardo Allen

» The Falcons essentially didn't lose anyone of significance from their NFC championship team. This is a young, deep squad with great continuity. The only new starter on offense is right guard Wes Schweitzer. (There is a change at fullback, but even a Pro Bowler like Patrick DiMarco only played 30 percent of the team's snaps.) If things crumble, it's fair to pin any struggles on the departure of coordinator Kyle Shanahan. This team is loaded otherwise.

» The defense also returned all the key parts and added some compelling pieces like free-agent defensive tackle Dontari Poe, first-round pick Takkarist McKinley and third-rounder Duke Riley. The Falcons are set up to make those Super Bowl hangover articles look silly.

» Give Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff credit for continuing to aggressively address the pass-rush issues. While Vic Beasley may be the only consistent edge defender who can win one-on-one matchups, the Falcons have depth: Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed, Derrick Shelby and McKinley are all versatile talents who can play different positions in three- or four-man fronts.

» Beasley and Reed, for instance, could be listed as outside linebackers or defensive ends. Almost every Falcons front-line player can move around. Look for Campbell, who was impressive as a rookie, to move to strong-side linebacker while Riley, Deion Jones' teammate in college, takes the weak side.

» The depth extends throughout the defense. Brian Poole and Jalen Collins round out a nice four-pack at cornerback. Almost every position except safety has a solid backup plan. In Year 3 of the Dan Quinn era, the coach has a full complement of his style of players. There's no excuse for the Falcons to finish 27th in points allowed again.

» Devonta Freeman is right. He and Tevin Coleman comprise the best running back duo in football.

» If Austin Hooper develops as expected, this offense will be even tougher to stop.

Carolina Panthers

QB: Cam Newton
RB: Jonathan Stewart
RB: Christian McCaffrey
WR: Kelvin Benjamin
WR: Devin Funchess
TE: Greg Olsen
LT: Matt Kalil
LG: Andrew Norwell
C: Ryan Kalil
RG: Trai Turner
RT: Daryl Williams

DE: Mario Addison
DT: Kawann Short
DT: Star Lotulelei
DE: Charles Johnson
OLB: Thomas Davis
MLB: Luke Kuechly
MLB: Shaq Thompson
CB: James Bradberry
CB: Daryl Worley
S: Kurt Coleman
S: Mike Adams

» I have Julius Peppers coming off the bench in his return to Carolina. In the end, Mario Addison, Charles Johnson and Peppers should share snaps evenly. Addison is the youngest of the group (29 years old) and is making the most money, so he's the safest bet to play the most downs.

» This is the only team listed with two projected starting running backs. But the whole point of taking Christian McCaffrey at No. 8 overall is that he's not just a running back, right? It's easy to imagine a lot of formations where second-round pick Curtis Samuel and McCaffrey are both in the lineup at the same time, whether they are next to each other or across the formation.

Jonathan Stewart will still get plenty of carries, but his workload should be diminished. McCaffrey and Samuel should wind up taking snaps from Funchess and even Benjamin.

» The transition to a faster, more versatile offense makes it particularly costly that Cam Newton is spending the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery. This is supposed to be the offseason where Newton evolves away from many of the zone-read principles that have helped define the Panthers' offense.

» Michael Oher is not listed at right tackle. His concussion issues make his future career prospects uncertain. Second-round pick Taylor Moton is practicing as a tackle and could wind up starting on the right side.

» Mike Adams is one of the keys to this defense holding up. The Panthers signed the 36-year-old to start at safety, and there isn't much depth behind him.

New Orleans Saints

QB: Drew Brees
RB: Mark Ingram
WR: Michael Thomas
WR: Willie Snead
WR: Ted Ginn
TE: Coby Fleener
LT: Terron Armstead
LG: Andrus Peat
C: Max Unger
RG: Larry Warford
RT: Zach Strief

DE: Cameron Jordan
DT: Nick Fairley
DT: Sheldon Rankins
DE: Alex Okafor
OLB: Dannell Ellerbe
MLB: A.J. Klein
CB: Delvin Breaux
CB: Marshon Lattimore
CB: P.J. Williams
S: Kenny Vaccaro
S: Vonn Bell

» Adrian Peterson may be on the field to take the first carry of the season in Minnesota, because Sean Payton loves drama and symbolism. But Mark Ingram is a better bet for more snaps during the year, because he knows the system and is more versatile. They should wind up splitting snaps and driving fantasy owners crazy, especially when third-round pick Alvin Kamara comes in to perform Darren Sproles' old role in the offense.

» If Kamara is the new Sproles, then Ted Ginn is the new Devery Henderson. In Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, Brandon Coleman and Ginn, Drew Brees has a receiver group with incredible variety. Combine that gang with the deep backfield, and this can be the best Saints offense since 2011.

» Ryan Ramczyk was a disappointing first-round pick to many Saints fans (and coaches) who wanted the team to draft linebacker Reuben Foster. Ramczyk, however, could wind up starting at right tackle and provides valuable insurance, considering Terron Armstead's injury history.

» The Saints' problems almost never change. They don't know who will start opposite Cameron Jordan, they have few edge rushers and they have question marks at linebacker. They are throwing a lot of players against the wall at linebacker (A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o, Alex Anzalone, Stephone Anthony, Craig Robertson, etc.) in the hopes that someone sticks. This approach hasn't worked in the past.

» It's not as if the Saints are embracing their status in the NFL ecosystem as a terrible defensive team. They believe they are better and improved last year under Dennis Allen, becoming a garden-variety bottom-five defense rather than a historically bad group. There is some reason for optimism. Squint hard and you can make the case this is the best secondary in the division. The defensive tackle duo is a plus. (Squinting can stop now.)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

QB: Jameis Winston
RB: Jacquizz Rodgers*
WR: Mike Evans
WR: DeSean Jackson
WR: Adam Humphries
TE: O.J. Howard
LT: Donovan Smith
LG: J.R. Sweezy
C: Ali Marpet
RG: Kevin Pamphile
RT: Demar Dotson

DE: Noah Spence
DT: Gerald McCoy
DT: Chris Baker
DE: William Gholston
OLB: Lavonte David
MLB: Kwon Alexander
OLB: Kendell Beckwith
CB: Brent Grimes
CB: Vernon Hargreaves
S: J.J. Wilcox
S: Justin Evans

» In a league full of dinks and dunks, coach Dirk Koetter and Jameis Winston are fixing to go deep with impunity. It's not just Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson who can get vertical. Rookie Chris Godwin and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate can all make big plays down the field.

» Jacquizz Rodgers is listed as the team's starting running back because Doug Martin is suspended for the first three games of the season. The reports about Martin's return to the field have been glowing. I'd usually be skeptical of such offseason fluffery, but the same was said about Martin all offseason before his career year in 2015. Rodgers and Charles Sims figure to split the work until Martin returns.

» The Bucs' best hope for offensive line improvement comes from Ali Marpet transitioning to center with the healthy return of J.R. Sweezy. This is an average tackle combination at best and a group that quietly sunk this offense for much of last season.

» Tampa's defensive line looks better than it has since Monte Kiffin's heyday. Noah Spence is primed to break out and the addition of Chris Baker gives the team flexibility. Gerald McCoy has the ability to put together a Defensive Player of the Year season. There is even quality depth up front, with Robert Ayers and Clinton McDonald not listed above.

» Kendell Beckwith is coming off a torn ACL, but he was drafted to shore up a trouble spot at linebacker next to Kwon Alexander.

» Only two cornerbacks were listed because I have no clue who the team's nickel cornerback will be. This position could sink the Bucs. There is no depth behind 2016 first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves and 34-year-old No. 1 cornerback Brent Grimes, who played well beyond his age last year. It's hard to imagine Grimes backing that season up.

» At least the team is deep at safety. With second-round pick Justin Evans already impressing, last year's starters Keith Tandy and Chris Conte could be coming off the bench.

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