NFC South projected starters: Saints appear stout on ... defense?

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Gregg Rosenthal will project post-draft starting lineups for all 32 teams, because there's no better way to celebrate the arrival of spring.

ATLANTA FALCONS

QB: Matt Ryan
RB: Devonta Freeman
WR: Julio Jones
WR: Calvin Ridley
WR: Mohamed Sanu
TE: Austin Hooper
LT: Jake Matthews
LG: James Carpenter
C: Alex Mack
RG: Chris Lindstrom
RT: Kaleb McGary

DE: Takk McKinley
DT: Grady Jarrett
DT: Jack Crawford
DE: Vic Beasley
OLB: De'Vondre Campbell
MLB: Deion Jones
CB: Desmond Trufant
CB: Isaiah Oliver
CB/S: Damontae Kazee
S: Keanu Neal
S: Ricardo Allen

» The above projection is a best-case scenario on the offensive line. Atlanta didn't draft Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary in the first round to sit. Still, the Falcons have veteran journeymen to back up the rookies, just in case reality doesn't match their draft expectations.

» The passing game is too talented not to excel. But the offensive line and Devonta Freeman's health will determine the effectiveness of the running game. Freeman has struggled to stay on the field since signing his big extension. Second-year pro Ito Smith is a promising backup, but he's no Freeman, who is a natural fit in coordinator Dirk Koetter's system.

» My compatriot Chris Wesseling said on the Around The NFL Podcast that the Falcons have the best three-receiver set in football, and I'm not here to argue.

» General manager Thomas Dimitroff surprisingly did little tinkering with his defense this offseason. More than anything, Atlanta needs Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley to improve while Keanu Neal and Deion Jones return to the field. Coach Dan Quinn has underperformed defensively, considering the talent on this roster.

» I'm not that concerned about the Falcons' secondary. They have talent and experience at safety, Damontae Kazee is a versatile fit for the nickelback position and the starting cornerbacks match up pretty well with the rest of the league. Desmond Trufant is capable of playing much better than he did in 2018.

Biggest change from a year ago: The focus on improving the Falcons up front hints at a more balanced offense under old/new coordinator Koetter.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

QB: Cam Newton
RB: Christian McCaffrey
WR: D.J. Moore
WR: Curtis Samuel
WR: Jarius Wright
TE: Greg Olsen
LT: Greg Little
LG: Daryl Williams
C: Matt Paradis
RG: Trai Turner
RT: Taylor Moton

DE: Mario Addison
DT: Kawann Short
DT: Dontari Poe
DE: Brian Burns
OLB: Shaq Thompson
MLB: Luke Kuechly
CB: James Bradberry
CB: Donte Jackson
CB: Corn Elder
S: Eric Reid
S: Rashaan Gaulden

» Carolina was one of the easiest teams to fill out for this league-wide exercise. There aren't a ton of position battles, especially on defense.

» It's a surprise the Panthers didn't add more competition at wide receiver or running back. The Norv Turner-Cam Newton marriage was promising until Newton hurt his shoulder last season, but Carolina's asking Cam to carry an undermanned wideout group once again. Perhaps D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel will continue to step up, but they don't match up well against other No. 1s and No. 2s around the league. Veterans Chris Hogan and Torrey Smith will also be in the mix for snaps in what should be a spread-the-wealth offense.

» The Panthers entered the offseason recognizing that Christian McCaffrey's workload in 2018 (326 touches) could be unsustainable, but they never added a veteran. Cameron Artis-Payne will battle rookies Jordan Scarlett (fifth-round pick) and Elijah Holyfield (undrafted) for the backup job.

» General manager Marty Hurney drafted Greg Little in the second round to be the team's next left tackle. If he wins the job out of camp, look for Taylor Moton and Daryl Williams to compete on the right side, with Williams possibly kicking inside to left guard. Moton played well last season and Williams is coming off major surgery.

» Brian Burns may have been the best match of talent, scheme and need in the first round of the draft. The Panthers know how to coach up defensive linemen and need Burns to bring heat off the edge from the jump. He could be the key to the defense, because expecting veteran pickup Bruce Irvin to make a big impact at this stage of his career is expecting too much.

» This is a very young secondary. In Rashaan Gaulden and Corn Elder, the Panthers are counting on two untested players as starters. A rough 2018 aside, coach Ron Rivera has earned the benefit of the doubt in turning secondary water into wine.

Biggest change from a year ago: The status of Newton's shoulder is more important than any roster shuffling for a coaching staff feeling the heat.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

QB: Drew Brees
RB: Alvin Kamara
WR: Michael Thomas
WR: Ted Ginn Jr.
WR: Tre'Quan Smith
TE: Jared Cook
LT: Terron Armstead
LG: Andrus Peat
C: Erik McCoy
RG: Larry Warford
RT: Ryan Ramczyk

DE: Cameron Jordan
DT: David Onyemata
DE: Marcus Davenport
OLB: Demario Davis
MLB: Alex Anzalone
OLB: A.J. Klein
CB: Marshon Lattimore
CB: Eli Apple
CB: Patrick Robinson
S: Vonn Bell
S: Marcus Williams

» Losing Mark Ingram as option 1B in the backfield shouldn't hurt that much. Latavius Murray is a capable replacement and Alvin Kamara is worthy of a bigger workload.

» The wideout spots should be pretty open after Michael Thomas. Ted Ginn Jr. should be safe, although the pecking order between him, Tre'Quan Smith, respectably paid import Cameron Meredith and Keith Kirkwood seems unclear. Knowing Sean Payton's history, some undrafted rookie will probably beat them all out.

» One of the best -- yet most snakebit -- offensive lines is nearly back to fully intact. The Saints traded up for Erik McCoy to replace Max Unger after his sudden retirement, so why not do it from Day 1?

» Sheldon Rankins' breakout season ended with an unfortunate Achilles tear, so he's not listed among the Week 1 starters. The Saints are pretty deep at the position, though, with David Onyemata, Malcom Brown and Mario Edwards all able to take snaps.

» Marcus Davenport's maturation could be the difference between a good Saints defense and a great one.

» For years, I wrote in this projected-starters space about the rotating struggles at the Saints' linebacker position. In leader Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein, New Orleans finally landed on a combination that works.

» The Saints' secondary play dipped last season, but this is still one of the deepest groups in the league. Getting a healthy Patrick Robinson back in the slot will help. Eli Apple will try to build on his strong play after being acquired from the Giants. The safeties form one of the better young duos in football. An experienced player like P.J. Williams or Ken Crawley might not even make the team.

Biggest change from a year ago: The defense is stable, with answers at every position. When's the last time a Saints team entered a season like that?

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

QB: Jameis Winston
RB: Peyton Barber
WR: Mike Evans
WR: Chris Godwin
WR: Breshad Perriman
TE: O.J. Howard
LT: Donovan Smith
LG: Ali Marpet
C: Ryan Jensen
RG: Alex Cappa
RT: Demar Dotson

DE: Gerald McCoy
DT: Vita Vea
DE: Will Gholston
OLB: Carl Nassib
ILB: Devin White
ILB: Lavonte David
OLB: Shaq Barrett
CB: Vernon Hargreaves
CB: Sean Bunting
S: Justin Evans
S: Jordan Whitehead

» I'm less excited about the 2019 Bucs after performing this exercise. While Bruce Arians could be the perfect match for Jameis Winston, there are too many other potholes dotted throughout the roster to ignore.

» The offense is mostly intact from a year ago, although replacing Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson with Breshad Perriman isn't exactly a win. Despite a sub-standard running back room led by Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones, the depth of weapons here still isn't the problem. Winston has plenty of talented folks to throw to.

» It will be interesting to see how Arians uses his talented tight ends, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. The coach has primarily asked tight ends to block in the past, but it'd be foolish not to take advantage of the in-house talent.

» The huge contract for left tackle Donovan Smith is typical on an offensive line with four starters back despite poor overall play. The Bucs have finished in the bottom 10 teams in pass blocking for three straight seasons, according to Pro Football Focus.

» The bigger questions for the Bucs come on defense. They are configured in a 3-4 lineup above because that's primarily what coordinator Todd Bowles has done in the past. Gerald McCoy could be traded because he's not quite a fit in Bowles' scheme despite his still-solid production.

» That said, the Bucs might not be able to afford dealing McCoy after Jason Pierre-Paul's recent neck injury. Where is the pass rush coming from? Free-agent pickup Shaq Barrett, 2018 waiver pickup Carl Nassib and 2016 second-rounder Noah Spence look like the best options.

UPDATE: The Bucs released McCoy after nine seasons.

» The strength of Tampa Bay's D will be pursuing linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David. It will be hard to beat this team to the outside.

» The Bucs are hoping quantity can turn into quality at cornerback. They have at least six cornerbacks fighting for their top three spots, with four of them drafted in the top three rounds of the last two drafts. None of Tampa's cornerbacks have proven to be standouts, hence embattled general manager Jason Licht continuing to draft them.

Biggest change from a year ago: The Bucs are banking on the new coaching staff turning the ship around, because the roster doesn't look much better.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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