In what just might be the NFL's most competitive division, the members of the NFC South are all heading the training camp with a legitimate shot of winning the division. The Atlanta Falcons are still the favorites, but after a strong offseason the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren't too far behind them. And while 2012 wasn't a banner year for the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, both teams have a decent shot at bringing home a division title as well.
As camp gets underway in each city, all four coaching staffs will be looking to see how new additions to their team will impact the coming season. Which players should you keep an eye on as the NFC South gets to work this week?
Will new-look secondaries slow down high-flying offenses?
On nearly a weekly basis, NFC South defenses have to contend with the likes of Julio Jones, Drew Brees, Vincent Jackson, Matt Ryan, and Roddy White. Even with top quality running backs like Doug Martin to factor into the equation, it's clear that stopping the passing attack is goal #1 for NFC South defenses on most weekends. With that in mind, it's no surprise that upgrading the secondary was a key offseason priority across the division.
With limited room under the salary cap, Atlanta opted to add new faces to the defensive backfield via the draft, selecting both Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Both rookies enter training camp with high expectations. As the higher selection, Trufant is favored to win a starting job on the outside, but both he and Alford will be expected to provide major contributions to the defense in 2013.
New Orleans has had some historically bad defenses in recent years, and a big part of the problem has been poor secondary play. Fortunately for Saints' fans, they'll be seeing plenty of new faces in the secondary as training camp gets under way. Headlining the list of newcomers is of course, Kenny Vaccaro, the plug and play rookie who should go a long way towards solidifying the secondary from the safety position. Keenan Lewis is obviously a big plus at corner back, but don't over look the value of role players like Chris Carr. Provided the group can build chemistry over the next month, they could greatly improve the New Orleans defense.
Without question Tampa Bay made the most notable additions to their secondary, adding two of the top defensive backs in the league when they acquired Darelle Revis and Dashon Goldson. Adding the two All-Pros is a huge boost, but an improved defense isn't set in stone. All eyes will be on Revis' knee as he looks to prove he's recovered from the torn ACL that sidelined him last year. The Bucs will also be looking to their draft class for help in the secondary. Now that Eric Wright is no longer with the team, rookie Jonathan Banks has a shot at proving he's worthy of a starting job in camp.
Atlanta's number one priority: protect Matt Ryan.
Regardless of philosophy or make up of the roster, for all 32 teams across the league, there is no more important part of their franchise than the quarterback. Protecting that asset is of utmost importance – so for Atlanta, who clearly have hopes of reaching the Super Bowl, there has to be some serious concern about how their offensive line is going to come together over the next several weeks.
Instead of veterans Tyson Clabo and Todd McClure, the Falcons will be looking to much younger players in 2013 to keep Matt Ryan's jersey clean. Lamar Holmes, a third round pick in the 2012 draft, is likely going to be Clabo's replacement at tackle, and Peter Konz will be moving to center to replace McClure after struggling at guard during his rookie year. For all of the weapons the Falcons have on offense, it'll make little difference if these two young players don't mature and improve quickly.
Will Josh Freeman get caught looking over his shoulder?
Josh Freeman is one of the more difficult quarterbacks in the league to figure out. By this point in most quarterback's careers, the “book” is for the most part written – either they're going to be a successful starting quarterback, or they aren't. For Freeman, the story is much different. It's not that he's been bad, it's just that he's been underwhelming enough that many in Tampa Bay are concerned that he doesn't have what it takes to lead them to the playoffs and beyond.
Enter rookie QB Mike Glennon. While the coaching staff insists that Freeman is the starter, Glennon is a talented enough young passer that he's going to be able to put pressure on the incumbent starter. There's no reason to expect Glennon to win the job outright in training camp. What we fill find out, however, is if Glennon will flash ability that could end up causing controversy later if Freeman struggles during the season.
Can two young Panthers elevate Carolina's defense?
Once considered to be a lock as a top five selection Star Lotulelei was a huge steal for the Panthers in the first round. With concerns about his health in the rear view mirror at this point, what's left for Lotulelei to prove now is that he's got a passionate motor for the game, something that has been questioned at times. The long days of training camp will provide him with an excellent opportunity to prove those who doubt his motor wrong.
As if he needed extra motivation, he'll also be feeling pressure from second round pick, DT Kawann Short. Both Lotulelei and Short will not only be huge improvements on the defensive line, but if they live up to expectations they'll also be elevating the game of some of the Panthers' most talented defenders. Jon Beason, Luke Kuechly, and Thomas Davis will no doubt benefit from the improved play in front of them. Doug Martin and the rest of the NFC South's running backs should take note.