Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. Over the next month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr will break down all 32 teams and give us something to look for in late July.
Training camp report date: Rookies and veterans, July 27
Offseason in a nutshell: Atlanta started last season in idyllic fashion before crashing back to earth. Had it not been for a strong win over the Panthers just before the end of the season -- a game that ended Carolina's perfect run just two weeks after the Panthers had thrashed the Falcons 38-0 -- our opinion about 2015 might have been different. But, as we found out last year, this is a good team that was just too weak at certain spots to sustain a winning record. Will 2016 be different? Dan Quinn has another season under his belt and was able to add some complementary pieces -- Courtney Upshaw, Derrick Shelby, Sean Weatherspoon and rookie first-round pick Keanu Neal -- who should better fit the system. Alex Mack joined the team in free agency and will play alongside a pair of Around The NFL Making The Leap candidates: Mohamed Sanu and Jake Matthews.
Player to watch: Safety Keanu Neal. While coaches often try and dissuade players from smashing one another before the games count, we think there will be an exception made for Neal, considering that skill set is exactly why the Falcons drafted him. Quinn developed the NFL's most feared thumper in Kam Chancellor and is undertaking his next big project with the hope that Atlanta can stabilize its run defense and increase its overall toughness. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Neal spent his downtime between minicamp and training camp working out with Chancellor. That doesn't make him an honorary Legion of Boom member just yet, but it does make us more excited for the first tackling drill of camp.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS:
This was a supposedly underwhelming tight end draft class, though Hooper was considered one of the more promising options available. We're interested because offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had his first real crack at drafting a tight end that suits his system after riding with veteran journeyman Jacob Tamme a year ago. Hooper drew comparisons to Coby Fleener, but with a bit more gusto in the blocking department -- and there's nothing wrong with a rookie willing to spring Devonta Freeman free.
King started college as a wide receiver, but was a late-round pick by the Falcons last year. They hope to continue the 6-foot-1, 212-pounder on the path to elite cornerback. Sound familiar? Quinn and the Seahawks have been doing this for years, and while King is raw, he'll have every opportunity to win a starting job this summer. Last year's second-round pick, Jalen Collins, has been suspended for the first four games of the season, and Quinn is looking for someone physical and versatile to sneak onto the field during obvious passing downs. Is there really a secret to developing these types of players, or did Seattle just get extremely lucky?
As we noted in our Jake Matthews "Making the Leap" piece, Mack's leadership could be the vehicle that drives Matthews to the Pro Bowl and provides more consistency up front. The Falcons had some great games offensively a year ago, but they were also pushed around significantly in others. Mack comes from Cleveland and likely still has a copy of Kyle Shanahan's playbook. The Falcons paid him $47.5 million over the next five years to walk in and be the consummate, instant-impact professional and expect nothing less.
Way-too-early season prediction: This team was 5-0 at one point last year, even if that was largely due to the team picking apart a laughable NFC East. Atlanta starts 2016 with three very winnable games against the Bucs, Raiders and Saints, an opening stretch that should give us an idea of how much misery carried over from the year before. These Falcons could easily win 11 games with their talent and a renaissance season from Matt Ryan, but they could also lose six games in a row like they did a year ago.
Training camp report date: Rookies and veterans, July 27.
Training camp location: Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina
Offseason in a nutshell: The Panthers are an interesting test case in 2016 in the scheme vs. talent debate. Theoretically, if a coaching staff did as good a job with Josh Norman as the Panthers did, they would be furious to see all of their time and effort hurled out the window. However, GM Dave Gettleman is one of the best, and his perception of value must be based on what we do not know about the players currently on Carolina's roster and what they're asked to do. We saw a similar exodus in Seattle after the Seahawks began tearing up offenses but also a moderately stable performance level week in and week out.
Player to watch: Zack Sanchez. With the increasing number of teams focusing on the slot for advantages in the passing game, starting a rookie at nickel can have disastrous consequences. But so far, Zack Sanchez has put himself in play while putting the Panthers defensive staff at ease. The versatility of linebackers Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson should help negate some of the inexperience, but Sanchez will be put through the fire early in camp. Gettleman showed that he's not afraid to pluck veteran talent when the current roster isn't good enough.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS:
It was heading that way last year before a knee injury derailed a comeback, but behind the scenes, Panthers wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl has been raving about Hill's work ethic. After being discarded from the Jets -- a team that never had the offensive stability or time to invest in his raw ability -- the Panthers stashed him on their practice squad and went to work. Hill was overjoyed when he was claimed by the Panthers and despite his injury a year ago, is relentlessly positive about cracking the lineup. ESPN's David Newton floated the idea that Hill's continued progress could make Ted Ginn "expendable," and while that may be a bit of a stretch, Hill could go a long way toward adding another dimension to this powerful offense.
2. Will we see more of the younger backs?
At their core, the Panthers are a run-first football team with a starting running back who just hit 29 and has plenty of miles. We saw some nice moments from Cameron Artis-Payne and are wondering if there will be a clear effort to give him more touches this summer. Our guess is that the Panthers would also like to limit the amount of times Cam Newton calls his own number on inside dive or fake plays, and that can be solved by a dependable back end rotation.
We all can agree that the light came on for 2015 second-round pick Devin Funchess toward the end of last season, which gave Carolina even higher hopes for their vertical offense in 2016, now that Kelvin Benjamin is healthy as well. It was always the dream to pair Newton with rangy receivers who have a seemingly limitless catch radius, and now they have potentially created a three-headed monster -- along with Greg Olsen -- that will be difficult to stop. But Funchess is the key here -- he can take this offense from great to unstoppable in a hurry.
Way-too-early season prediction: My "Irresponsible July Prediction" had the Panthers missing the playoffs, something no Super Bowl losing team has done since the 2006 and 2007 seasons. But the more I look at their supposed defects -- rookie starters at corner, the loss of some stabilizing veterans, a slightly more difficult schedule -- the more I think that the team is good enough to overcome them. After all, they have the best defensive line and linebacking corps in the sport. The Panthers could easily be 6-0 (Broncos, 49ers, Vikings, Falcons, Bucs, Saints) heading into a matchup with the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 30, and the return of Kelvin Benjamin makes their offense worlds better. Missing the playoffs would take a regression by Cam Newton unlike anything we've seen in recent NFL history, and his coaches feel the No. 1 player in the league is just getting warmed up.
New Orleans Saints
Training camp report date: Rookies July 20, veterans July 27.
Training camp location: The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
Offseason in a nutshell: Though the Saints were a disaster a year ago and all signs pointed to the team playing without either Sean Payton or Drew Brees in 2016, something happened this offseason to put the rocking boat at ease. While change is sometimes healthy, Payton brought up a good point about an old message being new in a league with so much turnover. There is a sense around the team that after years of expensive free agency miscues and salary cap difficulties, there is actually a bedrock of affordable and potentially explosive talent on the roster. A 2016 second-round pick (Michael Thomas) and a 2014 first-round pick (Brandin Cooks) should be starting at wide receiver. A 2013 third-round pick (Terron Armstead) has developed into one of the five best offensive tackles in the league. First-round pick Sheldon Rankins has been advertised as Aaron Donald Part 2, and lines up next to Cameron Jordan and in front of 2015 first-round pick Stephone Anthony. Obum Gwacham is a name to watch as a situational pass rusher this year, and, on the back end of their defense, Delvin Breaux is a bright young cornerback with a tremendously high upside.
Player to watch: Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. Rankins, the subject of a longer piece I did on the pre-draft process back in April, reportedly lived up to the hype during minicamp and is an early favorite to stay on the field all three downs. Camp will provide more of an affirmation -- we have been led to believe that the defensive tackle will be a bully (and his college tape shows that was the case) -- but now we get to see him against Max Unger, Armstead and Andrus Peat every day in practice. For those who love a good training camp pass-rushing drill, it's time to get your popcorn ready.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS:
At the moment, New Orleans has three tight ends (Coby Fleener, Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui) who are good enough to see the field on a consistent basis and three running backs (the Tim Hightower comeback continues!) who should earn significant carries. Last year, the offense ranked fourth in the league in plays run off the right guard (78) and eighth in plays run off the left guard (63), which suggests that we could see a more compact version of Payton's offense, even if blocking isn't Fleener's strong suit.
A report from NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport on Thursday suggested they were the favorites to land Anquan Boldin -- the best remaining receiver in free agency. Many have projected rookie Michael Thomas in the No. 2 role, which would make for a fascinating under-the-radar training camp battle if Boldin were to hit NOLA. Signing a vet this late in the game doesn't necessarily guarantee a roster spot, either -- just ask former Packers and Giants receiver James Jones. If New Orleans decides to hedge its bets, more entertainment for the rest of us. Regardless, Thomas is worth watching during red zone periods to see if he can deliver on his abilities as a big-bodied natural scorer.
Despite what was an objectively bad Saints season, Brees still nearly hit the 5,000-yard mark, passed for more than 30 touchdowns and reduced his number of interceptions from the year before. He only missed one game despite lingering rotator-cuff issues and treated us to one of the greatest offensive (and worst defensive) games in NFL history in a 52-49 win over the New York Giants. Payton told the crew on "NFL Total Access" recently that he sees absolutely no difference in Brees, which leads us to believe there won't be any special veteran vacation or treatment days this summer.
Way-too-early season prediction: We predicted a monumental divisional shakeup this offseason already (the Panthers missing the playoffs, perhaps?) and that means another team in the division needs to step up. This Saints' defensive line has the potential to be beastly under the right circumstances, and we're buying in. There are teams that surprise us every year, and wouldn't 11 wins for the Saints be a surprise?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Training camp report date: Rookies: July 25; Veterans: July 27
Training camp location: One Buccaneer Place, Tampa, Fla.
Offseason in a nutshell: The Buccaneers are not the first team to ditch their head coach in favor of the coordinator, but it was a fascinating maneuver for a club that had a promising season with a No. 1 overall pick at quarterback. The perception around the league is that this was a long time coming for Dirk Koetter, who was the hot candidate several times over the past six years, but never got the opportunity. Koetter was the perfect hire for Lovie Smith, and he may end up being the perfect head coach for Jameis Winston as well. Above all else, his ability to understand and manage quarterbacks stands out. As with any new coach, it will be important to watch what major changes he plans on making. The Bucs didn't have an iron-clad culture in place after only two seasons under Smith, but new coaches can rarely succeed by pretending to be just like the old ones.
Player to watch: Austin Seferian-Jenkins. A promising start in 2015 bled into one of the worst seasons catching the football among regular starting tight ends. Football Outsiders has an interesting breakdown of receiving plus/minus numbers and essentially, Seferian-Jenkins ended up underneath the demarcation line for an average replacement-level tight end. He joined Detroit's Eric Ebron, New England's Scott Chandler and Jacksonville's Julius Thomas in the bottom 10. Seferian-Jenkins is now on a self-imposed Twitter ban following an overblown moment on the Tampa Bay practice field when he was sent to the sidelines for a mental mistake. These are the kinds of fork-in-the-road moments that make training camp interesting for the dangerous pass-catcher. Seferian-Jenkins has all the tools and the Buccaneers' offense could take the next step under Jameis Winston with some help.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS:
1. Will the addition of Todd Monken mean valuable changes for the Bucs' wide receivers?
Austin Seferian-Jenkins wasn't the only player toward the bottom of Football Outsiders' catch list. Mike Evans, the team's 2014 first-round pick, also struggled last year despite putting up 1,206 yards on 75 catches. Evans was targeted a staggering 148 times, meaning that Winston could only expect a catch one out of every two times he threw Evans the ball. His talent level is out of this world and his production should be in line with the rest of that stellar wide receiver class. Monken, who is also serving as the team's offensive coordinator, will be sure to put his stamp on the team's biggest weapon.
2. Who emerges from the offensive line battle royale?
Tampa Bay is oddly deep at random spots on their roster, even if the starters aren't exceptional. For example, Brandon Myers could end up being a third tight end on this roster. Across the offensive line, Gosder Cherilus and Evan Smith won't crack the starting lineup unless something happens to Joe Hawley and Demar Dotson. This team will be fascinating to watch come cut day and could provide some other clubs with emergency starters while giving their very young core some solid competition during camp (Cherilus would only cost the Bucs $500,000 in dead money and Smith could be let go without penalty).
Charting field goals is a lonely pastime during training camp, but for writers and analysts, it's part of the job. Roberto Aguayo was a second-round pick out of Florida State in 2016 and while many bemoaned general manager Jason Licht's decision, it made sense to us -- if you have a glaring weakness at the highest-scoring position on your team and the best player is still available, take him. Still, Aguayo's draft position will demand perfection in some eyes. Many teams end their training camp practices with high-pressure, long-distance situations for kickers, and outside of clubs with a legitimate battle at the position, we will be talking the most about Aguayo.
Way-too-early season prediction: NFC South predictions are all over the place this preseason already. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Falcons and Saints will eventually bounce back and the Panthers will come back to earth a bit. Tampa is the interesting middle man. At the least, we'd expect them to improve upon a 6-10 record from last year. The talent on this roster is good enough to finish at least .500.