As we hurtle toward the regular season, check out our division-by-division primers highlighting players and storylines to watch in 2017. Kevin Patra tackles the NFC South below.
Most significant changes from 2016
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons owned the NFL's highest-flying offense in 2016 under Kyle Shanahan, who has since taken the top job in San Francisco. The transition to new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian hit a bump in the team's third preseason game, with Matt Ryan looking out of sorts. With essentially the same offensive chess pieces returning this year, Atlanta still boasts pick-your-poison playmakers at every position. The looming question once the regular season begins is whether the OC swap will cause troubles in the flow of the play calling and clip Ryan's wings a tad after soaring to an MVP season. Shanahan is an in-game master adjuster and one of the best self-scouters in the NFL. We won't know whether Sark can come close to replicating those traits until the real action starts.
Carolina Panthers: The Panthers spent the entire offseason planning to unleash a new offense that will get the ball out of Cam Newton's hands quicker and save him from the pulverizing hits that hamstrung his 2016 campaign. Enter rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. While we haven't seen much from Samuel, he'll add speed from the slot alongside Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. McCaffrey is the player who could truly morph the Panthers' offense. The first-round pick is a mismatch against linebackers in the passing game and is willing to lower his shoulder between the tackles. McCaffrey will start the season sharing the backfield with Johnathan Stewart, but Carolina coaches will struggle to take the dynamic McCaffrey off the field.
New Orleans Saints: After more swings and misses than Rob Deer, is this finally the season Sean Payton's defense goes from disaster to simply decent? The Saints completely remade their linebacking corps this offseason and it ... um ... (cough) ... er ... actually looked pretty dang good during the preseason. A.J. Klein looks like a player who absorbed the many pointers he received from Luke Kuechly for all those years in Carolina. Manti Te'o has been a solid run-stuffer and pass rusher. And rookie third-round pick Alex Anzalone has more sideline-to-sideline tackling speed than any Saint since, when, the days of the Dome Patrol? The addition of Alex Okafor up front could finally give New Orleans a decent partner to Cameron Jordan. There are still questions at corner, but this is the most optimistic the Saints defense has seemed heading into the season in years.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Evans hasn't paired with a decent receiving threat since his rookie year -- before Vincent Jackson deteriorated faster than Julian Glover in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." DeSean Jackson finally gives Evans a tag-team mate that Jameis Winston can exploit. Jackson's ability to beat teams deep, coupled with Evans' talent for winning one-on-one matchups all over the field, will stress defenses. Would opponents take the chance Jackson will blow a hamstring before reaching a deep bomb? Or might they give safety help over the top and allow Winston to pick them apart with Evans and the other array of characters -- Cameron Brate, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard, Adam Humphries, Charles Sims -- in Tampa?
One player to watch from each team
Atlanta Falcons: Grady Jarrett, defensive tackle.The last (meaningful) time the Falcons took the field, Jarrett was discussed as a potential Super Bowl MVP. Think about that for a second. The man was a monster, sacking Tom Brady three times and gobbling up five tackles. Jarrett should keep the mojo rolling in 2017. The Falcons continued to add to a young, spry defense this season. Pairing Jarrett with free agent Dontari Poe should massively upgrade the middle of Atlanta's defense, and it will free Jarrett to find the quarterback more often this year. With rookie linebacker Duke Riley looking primed for a big role as well, the Falcons' defense is on the rise.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, quarterback. It's simplistic to suggest the starting quarterback -- any starting quarterback -- is an important player to watch. After Newton struggled with an injury to his throwing shoulder that led to offseason surgery and him missing time during training camp, however, it's not a simple situation in Charlotte. Given his history taking hits, Newton will be a player to monitor early in the season, to see if there are any issues or setbacks. With the Panthers attempting to add new wrinkles to the offense, how he gels with his weapons will also be a factor. Can Cam become a Ben Roethlisberger-type pocket quarterback, or is his success tied to his feet?
New Orleans Saints: Adrian Peterson, running back. The entire Saints backfield will be fascinating to watch in 2017. How will Sean Payton juggle the reps (and egos) between Peterson, Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara? Many point to the Saints' use of Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister/Mike Bell/Chris Ivory trios back in the day as a plotting chart for this season's triumvirate. While Kamara slots into the Bush role, how will Peterson and Ingram share the load? Will one pout if left out of the game plan for a week (or more) at a time? On paper, the Saints leaning more heavily toward the ground game and pounding out yards in a time share between All Day and Ingram looks great. How that relationship evolves, in reality, could determine which path this season takes in New Orleans.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Vernon Hargreaves, cornerback. How the second-year pro plays could dictate just how good a defense the Bucs will deploy in 2017. Hargreaves had an up-and-down rookie campaign. At times, he was picked on. At other times, he looked every bit a first-round pick. Brent Grimes is a steady force on the opposite side of the field. Tampa upgraded the safety spot, with former Bronco T.J. Wardjoining the fold. And the Bucs have a playmaking trio at linebacker -- I was impressed with rookie Kendell Beckwith this preseason. If Hargreaves lives up to his talent this season, the Bucs' back end could be suffocating.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
The NFC South is the most competitive division in the NFL. ... McCaffrey! McCaffrey! McCaffrey! McCaffrey! ... The Bucs might boast the most complete team in the conference. ... Dan Quinn's defense is going to be a force down the road. ... Have we seen the end of Drew Brees in New Orleans?