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NFC South preview: Again, division appears wide open

The NFC South is the only division in which no team has repeated as champion and yet all four division teams have finished in first place at least once in the six seasons since the NFL re-aligned into four divisions in 2002.

The division appears to be wide-open again this year: an argument could be advanced for Tampa Bay, which finished first last year; New Orleans, which reached the NFC championship game two years ago, and Carolina, which used four quarterbacks last year.

Under the radar's Gil Brandt has identified four underrated players in the NFC South, one from each team, who will bear watching this season:

Justin Blalock
G, Atlanta

Started from Day 1 as a rookie last year, and showed the size and strength to block big defensive tackles. Has Pro Bowl ability.

Jon Beason
LB, Carolina

Started all 16 games last season and set a team record for tackles. Played first four games outside, but moved to middle and blossomed. Very athletic, every-down player.

Jahri Evans
G, New Orleans

Beat the odds by going from Division II college player to NFL starter. Very athletic, strong and possesses good technique in pass protection.

Tanard Jackson
S, Tampa Bay

Started 16 games as a rookie last year on a defense that ranked No. 1 vs. pass and No. 2 overall. Instinctive player with good cover skills who is also tough against the run.

Only Atlanta, still putting the pieces back together from the twin debacles caused by former quarterback Michael Vick and former coach Bobby Petrino, does not appear to be a factor.

All three favored teams are intriguing. New Orleans rose quickly under coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, from last place to first in 2006, and then faded back again in 2007 due to a weak defense. At Tampa Bay, coach Jon Gruden never seems satisfied with his incumbent quarterback, although Jeff Garcia was the NFC's No. 3 passer last year. And at Carolina, coach John Fox has remade his offensive line to stress a power game.

Team on the rise

New Orleans hopes to prove that its run to the NFC title game two years ago was not a fluke. Drew Brees, whose last four seasons have been remarkably consistent, gives the Saints the most solid quarterback in the division. The Saints will try to put Reggie Bush in situations where he can showcase his unique escape ability, Jeremy Shockey will add some blocking power up front, and the defense has to be better.

Team in transition

Atlanta, and transition is putting it mildly. First-year coach Mike Smith is trying to change the atmosphere, which has been uncomfortable the last couple of years. First there was disenchantment with former coach Jim Mora two years ago and then there were Vick's problems and Petrino's hasty exit last year. The Falcons are starting over from the beginning, and will start No. 3 overall pick Matt Ryan at quarterback.

Coach in the spotlight

Mike Smith was a surprise choice by Falcons' owner Arthur Blank, who tends to lean heavily to bright lights and big names. Smith has a plan and knows what he's doing, but the issue is whether Blank has learned from the past and will allow Smith the time and space to rebuild the Falcons for the long haul, rather than seeking a quick fix to attract attention.

Star on the rise

In Jon Gruden's halfway house, running back Michael Bennett has a chance to make it. Bennett is a very fast running back who had a good year with Minnesota in 2002, his second year in the league, but then faded and washed out with Kansas City. The Bucs got him last year and he was slow to assimilate the playbook, but he has it now and has looked good in camp. Even though Cadillac Williams (if healthy), Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn are on the roster, Bennett's great speed gives Gruden a dimension his offense has been sorely lacking.

Impact rookie

Jonathan Stewart of Carolina could be the best of the league's rookie running back crop. He's hard to tackle because he runs with power low to the ground (of course, he's only 5-10) and has good moves, too. With coach John Fox committing to the run and rebuilding the line to accommodate a power back, Stewart could have a big year.

Count on it

Drew Brees will be even better this year than he was during his first two seasons in New Orleans. The addition of a tight end like Jeremy Shockey will not only give him another big target in the middle of the field, but will also go a long way to making the blocking even better. Brees was the best-protected passer in the league, sacked just once for every 40 passes he threw.

Don't be surprised if

Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers makes a big-time comeback from his poor season in 2007.

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