NFC South training camp preview: Key players to watch

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Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. With camps opening later this month, Jeremy Bergman, Herbie Teope, Nick Shook and Marc Sessler are examining the key issues for each team in this division-by-division series. Here's the NFC South camp primer:

Atlanta Falcons

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 23) and veterans (July 26).

Location: Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia.

Most important position battle: Tight end. The battle behind starter Austin Hooper will fly under the radar for most observers, but its importance shouldn't be overlooked. The Falcons utilize a lot of "12" personnel groupings (one running back, two tight ends) on offense, and they will need to find a replacement for Levine Toilolo, who was released in early March in an apparent move to save cap space. While Hooper is the receiving threat, Toilolo's replacement will be relied upon to block in one of the NFL's top offenses and rushing attacks.

Veteran Logan Paulsen, who signed a one-year deal in March and enters his ninth professional season on his fourth team, provides depth. The Falcons, however, are likely to expect more from second-year pro Eric Saubert, a fifth-round pick in 2017. In addition to Paulsen and Saubert, the Falcons currently have tight ends Alex Gray and rookies Troy Mangen and Jaeden Graham on the roster.

Newcomers to watch: WR Calvin Ridley, DTs Terrell McClain and Deadrin Senat. Ridley, the 26th overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, has an opportunity to make an immediate impact in the offense. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver provides size and 4.43 speed. Opposing defenses also won't be able to key on him, considering the Falcons also have Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Ridley should see a lot of single coverage, and he should take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, the Falcons need to fill the hole that was vacated when defensive tackle Dontari Poe signed a free-agent deal with the Carolina Panthers. Atlanta signed Terrell McClain to a one-year deal and used a third-round pick on Deadrin Senat, who should compete for playing time as part of the defensive-line rotation.

Looming camp question: Did offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian learn from his mistakes? The Falcons' points-per-game mark fell from a league-high 33.8 in 2016 to 22.1 in '17 -- it's no secret they sputtered on the scoreboard last year under Sarkisian, who was in his first year as offensive coordinator after replacing Kyle Shanahan. This year, however, offers hope of a rebound, with Sarkisian saying in June that "Year 2 is just night and day, for me personally, just from a comfort level and where we are as a team." Nevertheless, there won't be excuses in Atlanta for Sarkisian going forward, given the presence of quarterback Matt Ryan, running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, plus the aforementioned Ridley and Hooper.

Carolina Panthers

Training camp report date: rookies and veterans (July 25).

Location: Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Most important position battle: Left guard. The cornerback position warrants attention as the Panthers look for a starter opposite James Bradberry. But arguably the biggest unsettled battle surrounds left guard and finding a replacement for 2017 first-team All-Pro Andrew Norwell, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars during free agency.

Carolina doesn't lack for options and candidates, including Taylor Moton, a second-round pick in 2017, Jeremiah Sirles, Amini Silatolu, Greg Van Roten and Tyler Larsen. Moton, in particular, provides plenty of intrigue. In addition to his status as the 64th overall pick in last year's draft, the second-year pro measures 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds and possesses the versatility to play guard and tackle.

The Panthers would likely prefer to settle the left guard position early in training camp, to give the eventual starter valuable first-team repetitions ahead of the regular season.

Newcomers to watch: WRs Torrey Smith and D.J. Moore. After finishing the 2017 regular season ranked 28th in passing (192.3 yards per game), the Panthers upgraded the receiving game with the additions of the veteran Smith and Moore, the 24th overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. Smith, who has averaged an impressive 16.4 yards per catch on his career, provides the deep threat the Panthers have consistently lacked in recent seasons, while Carolina will look to utilize Moore's versatility and 4.42 speed in a variety of ways. Smith and Moore combine with Devin Funchess to provide quarterback Cam Newton with a formidable trio of wide receivers, in addition to tight end Greg Olsen.

Looming camp question: How will offensive coordinator Norv Turner deploy his backfield? Turner raised some eyebrows in late May when he declared Cam Newton is capable of posting a "mid- to high-60s" completion percentage. But the signal-caller position aside, Turner is well-known for his history with running backs. Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson, plus Stephen Davis, Adrian Peterson and Darren Sproles, are among the high-profile rushers to have thrived under Turner, and the offensive coordinator now has a quality one-two combination in Carolina, with C.J. Anderson and second-year pro Christian McCaffrey. Coach Ron Rivera added to the offseason hype when he indicated McCaffrey, who had 117 carries in 2017, could see 200 carries in 2018. Anderson, of course, will command his fair share of touches, and McCaffrey is a dynamic receiver out of the backfield. But if anyone can figure out a way to utilize the duo, Turner certainly qualifies.

New Orleans Saints

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 18) and veterans (July 25).

Location: New Orleans Saints Training Facility in Metairie, Louisiana.

Most important position battle: Linebackers. As we learned in 2017, position coach Mike Nolan enjoys competition during training camp, and he'll have it again in 2018. Veteran Demario Davis, who joined the Saints on a three-year deal during free agency, projects as the starting middle linebacker in the 4-3 base defense. The strong side should be manned by A.J. Klein, who returns from a sports hernia injury and expects to be ready by training camp, while second-year pro Alex Anzalone is the likely favorite at the weakside spot.

Still, none of the three starting spots appear to be written in pen, and Craig Robertson, Manti Te'o and Nate Stupar will be actively involved in the competition. The Saints also have defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha, who can also play outside linebacker when required, and veteran linebacker Jayrone Elliott and rookies KeShun Freeman and Colton Jumper on the roster.

Newcomers to watch: DE Marcus Davenport, S Kurt Coleman. The Saints have searched high and low in recent years to find a complementary pass rusher opposite defensive end Cameron Jordan. Alex Okafor was a more than capable fit in the first half of the 2017 season before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury. The Saints traded up to use a first-round pick (14th overall) on Davenport, who has worked with the first-team defense during OTAs while Okafor continues to recover. Davenport will have plenty of opportunities in training camp to show he should be a starter.

The Saints also bolstered the back end of coverage with the addition of Coleman, whose veteran leadership and versatility will be counted on with Kenny Vaccaro no longer on the roster. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has often utilized a three-safety package in the past two seasons, so Coleman, Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell should see plenty of action together.

Looming camp question: Who steps up during Mark Ingram's absence? Ingram will serve a four-game suspension to start the season for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances, and his 1,124 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns from 2017 won't be easy to replace. While second-year pro Alvin Kamara is capable of taking on a full workload, the Saints prefer to play it smart with the NFL's reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. To bolster depth at the running back position ahead of the regular season, the Saints signed Terrance West after his successful workout in mid-June. West joins Jonathan Williams, Trey Edmunds, Daniel Lasco and rookie Boston Scott in the backfield, and one of them must emerge in training camp to help take pressure off Kamara.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 23) and veterans (July 25).

Location: One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Florida.

Most important position battle: Cornerback. Training camp sets the stage for a battle royale, and the Buccaneers will have options to select from, with hopes on improving a leaky pass defense that ranked last in the league in 2017 and 22nd in 2016. Veteran Brent Grimes appears set to retain one of the outside starting spots, but there will be competition for the other position and slot cornerback. The Buccaneers' choices include Vernon Hargreaves and Ryan Smith from last year's roster, plus a pair of second-round picks from the 2018 NFL Draft in rookies M.J. Stewart (53rd overall) and Carlton Davis (63rd overall). Fixing the pass defense takes on more importance when one considers that the Buccaneers play in the same division as quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton.

Newcomers to watch: DLs Jason Pierre-Paul, Beau Allen, Vinny Curry, Mitch Unrein and Vita Vea. Gerald McCoy, William Gholston and Noah Spence return, and McCoy remains the anchor as a one-time first-team All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowl selection. Tampa Bay, however, took an aggressive approach during the offseason to bolster the front line by bringing in Pierre-Paul, Allen, Curry and Unrein, and then using a first-round pick (12th overall) on Vea in the draft. The ability to affect the opposing quarterback starts in the trenches, and how well the revamped unit applies pressure up front should go a long way in helping the cornerback group, which also appears in transition with some new pieces.

Looming camp question: Can Ryan Fitzpatrick hold down the fort until Jameis Winston returns? Losing Winston to a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy to start the season is bad enough, but the Buccaneers play the New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers in that span. The early fate of the Buccaneers falls on Fitzpatrick's ability to play competitively against those teams, which combined for a 37-11 record in 2017.

Nevertheless, there is a glimmer of hope for the Buccaneers during Winston's absence. Fitzpatrick knows the offense, and he played relatively well in games Winston missed last season with a shoulder injury. The Buccaneers went 2-1 with Fitzpatrick as the starter, and it's not like the veteran quarterback won't have weapons around him, with wide receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

Follow Herbie Teope on Twitter @HerbieTeope

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