NFC South inside intel: Vital rookies, key position battles, juicy subplots

Charley Casserly spent three decades in the NFL, starting as an unpaid intern and ultimately serving as general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, snagging three Super Bowl rings along the way. During his rise up the scouting ranks and eventual entry into the front office, Casserly made connections across the league -- lasting connections that extend to this day and provide rare access to the team-building process.

In the Inside Intel series, our resident GM mines his sources across the league to relay the inside word on impact rookies, prominent position battles and remaining questions. You'll find the NFC South intel below.

Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons
2019 record · 7-9

IMPACT ROOKIES

A.J. Terrell, cornerback: Expected to be a starter in Dan Quinn's defense, Terrell shines brightest in press coverage. He's aggressive and competitive, and he should improve the back end of the defense.

Marlon Davidson, defensive tackle: The Falcons aim to get inside pass-rushing production from the rookie, who plays with a high motor and has quickness and explosiveness as a rusher. Davidson may also be used on run downs as a defensive end.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
OG James Carpenter Jamon Brown Matt Hennessy
CB1/CB2 A.J. Terrell Kendall Sheffield Isaiah Oliver

At the cornerback position, Terrell should be one starter, with Sheffield and Oliver competing for the other starting job. In a nickel defense, expect Sheffield to be the nickel and Oliver to play outside.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

Can the defense pick up where it left off? Last season's defensive turnaround, which saw the Falcons finish 6-2, started when Raheem Morris became defensive coordinator and simplified the scheme to allow players to play faster and make fewer mistakes. With an offseason dedicated to working on the mental and physical aspects, the defense should keep the same level of confidence when executing assignments. Key players who must come through are Takk McKinley, Terrell and Sheffield, who made a big jump in his play last season.

Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers
2019 record · 5-11

IMPACT ROOKIES

Derrick Brown, defensive tackle: Ranked 29th in run defense last season, the Panthers needed a boost -- and they found one in rookie Brown. He can be a dominant player against the run by forcing double teams, which keeps linebackers free and allows Kawann Short to face more one-on-ones. On passing situations, Brown has the strength and power to get a good push up the middle, which is the kind of rush that bothers division QBs Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
LG Dennis Daley Chris Reed Michael Schofield
CB2 Eli Apple Troy Pride Stanley Thomas-Oliver

There's still competition to be had, but cornerback Eli Apple is the front-runner for a starting position opposite Donte Jackson.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

Will the O-line come together and protect Teddy Bridgewater? The Panthers allowed a league-high 58 sacks last season, but there's reason to believe their pass protection will be better in 2020. Bridgewater is familiar with Joe Brady's offense, which emphasizes getting the ball out quickly; that is a strength of Bridgewater's, along with reading defenses. Carolina solidified the left tackle position by trading for Russell Okung, and the Panthers signed John Miller to play right guard. The addition of these three players to the offense should greatly reduce the number of sacks.

New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints
2019 record · 13-3

IMPACT ROOKIES

Cesar Ruiz, center: Most likely set to start at center or guard (Erik McCoy will start at the other position), Ruiz has the size and strength to hold the line to protect Drew Brees. Having a solid presence on the interior is key, because Brees struggles against pressure up the middle.  

Zack Baun, outside linebacker: Baun is slated to start at SAM in the Saints' defense. He gives the unit a versatile player who can play all three downs, is effective as a blitzer or cover man and can help set the edge to stop the run.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
TE2 Josh Hill Adam Trautman

Hill or Trautman will pose as the "Y" tight end (a blocker and receiver) opposite TE1 Jared Cook, who is more of a receiver.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

A look at the backup QB position. The Saints have one of the more intriguing QB rooms, with Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston backing up Brees. Hill, who has improved his accuracy over the last several seasons, can take the next step by continuing to get better in his progressions when reading the defense. He is more apt to tuck the ball and run if his first read isn't there instead of going through all of his progressions.

Winston will have the chance to sit and truly learn from someone for the first time in his career. He'd be smart to pick up Brees' leadership and preparation qualities. As a leader, Brees finds the "right button" to push get the most out of every single player. Winston has these qualities, but studying behind and working with Brees may help him find another (more efficient and helpful) way to do things.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2019 record · 7-9

IMPACT ROOKIES

Tristan Wirfs, offensive tackle: He's an excellent technician, well-coached and a very good athlete. Look for Wirfs to be an immediate starter at right tackle, a point of emphasis this offseason. 

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
RB2 Ke'Shawn Vaughn Dare Ogunbowale T.J. Logan
WR3 Tyler Johnson Scott Miller Justin Watson
S Justin Evans Mike Edwards Antoine Winfield Jr.

Even if safety Justin Evans, who was sidelined with an Achilles injury for the entire 2019 season, is ready for training camp, he will compete for a starting role and playing time with Edwards and Winfield.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

What will the offense look like with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski? Once Brady masters the playbook, he and the offensive staff will meet to find common ground on what they want the offense to look like. An example of what we might see: The Bucs have emphasized the deep ball, while Brady and the Pats did not. But now that Brady has some legit deep threats, we could expect him to let it fly more in 2020. On the other hand, tight ends have been a big part of the Pats' offense but haven't in Tampa. Now with Gronk coming out of retirement, expect that position to become a bigger part of the game plan. Ultimately, the goal is to keep the offensive production at the highest levels (the Bucs ranked third in total offense in each of the last two seasons) but cut down on turnovers by 75 percent (Winston had 30 INTs in 2019; Brady had 29 over the last four seasons combined).

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