NFC South primer: Rivals will offer a tall challenge for Bucs

There are high expectations for Lovie Smith in his first year as the Bucs' coach, but the NFC South features three strong teams in the Falcons, Saints and Panthers.

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ hire of coach Lovie Smith is movement in the right direction, but rivals in the NFC South will make a climb toward the top of the division difficult.

Yes, it’s hard to predict in July how standings will look come late December given the NFL’s parity, but it’s fair to assume the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints should be improved from last year. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to tell if quarterback Cam Newton will carry the Carolina Panthers as far as he did in 2013, but there will be no shortage of motivation for the defending division champs to repeat.

As with previous years, the NFC South boasts the potential for offensive fireworks. Along with Newton, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan represent some of the most skilled talents at their position. Though Josh McCown performed well as Jay Cutler’s backup last season with the Chicago Bears, there are questions whether the 35-year-old has the mental and physical stamina to make the Bucs competitive throughout an entire fall.

Smith has said there’s no time for a grace period. His expectation is to win fast and win now. That vision will be tested early and often in his first year as the Bucs’ coach.

Here’s a look at how Tampa Bay’s division rivals look entering training camp (2013 record in parenthesis):

CAROLINA PANTHERS (12-4, 1ST)

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton

Key free-agent additions: FS Thomas DeCoud (Atlanta), WR Jason Avant (Philadelphia), SS Roman Harper (New Orleans), CB Antoine Cason (Arizona), WR Jerricho Cotchery (Pittsburgh).

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Key free-agent losses: WR Ted Ginn (Arizona), WR Domenik Hixon (Chicago), WR Brandon LaFell (New England), FS Mike Mitchell (Pittsburgh), CB Captain Munnerlyn (Minnesota), WR Steve Smith (Baltimore).

Rookies: WR Kelvin Benjamin (first round, Florida State), DE Kony Ealy (second, Missouri), OG Trai Turner (third, LSU), SS Tre Boston (fourth, North Carolina), CB Bene Benwikere (fifth, San Jose State), RB Tyler Gaffney (sixth, Stanford).

Analysis: It will be strange seeing Carolina’s offense without Smith at wide receiver, and the loss of Ginn at the position could be another significant blow, but Benjamin has a chance to establish himself early as a rookie. Many consider Harper well past his prime, so it will be interesting to see how much more he has left as the Panthers attempt to improve their secondary.

Make no mistake, the Panthers will go as far as Newton leads them. He was strong in throwing for a career-high 24 touchdowns last season, but he continued a trend of producing double-digit interceptions in each year as a professional by finishing with 13 last season.

Carolina was the NFC South’s surprise last year, but expect a harder road to repeat as division champions. New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay should all be better.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (11-5, 2ND)

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees

Key free-agent additions: CB Champ Bailey (Denver), FS Jairus Byrd (Buffalo), FB Erik Lorig (Tampa Bay).

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Key free-agent losses: C Brian De La Puente (Chicago), FS Malcolm Jenkins (Philadelphia), WR Lance Moore (Pittsburgh), DE Will Smith (New England), OT Charles Brown (New York Giants), SS Roman Harper (Carolina).

Rookies: WR Brandin Cooks (first round, Oregon State), CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (second, Nebraska), LB Khairi Fortt (fourth, California), SS Vinnie Sunseri (fifth, Alabama), LB Ronald Powell (fifth, Florida), OT Tavon Rooks (sixth, Kansas State).

Analysis: The Saints enter this season with a goal of earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It’s clear they’re a better team within the loud confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome than away from it, as shown by their disappointing losses at Seattle, St. Louis and the New York Jets last year.

Bailey is an interesting arrival to the Saints’ secondary after his long career with the Denver Broncos. Can he play at an elite level? The loss of Moore to the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency could hurt, but Cooks has potential as New Orleans’ top draft pick.

As long as Brees remains the Saints’ quarterback, they will stand as one of the NFC’s powerhouses. Where they play come the playoffs’ late rounds could determine if another Super Bowl is in their future.

ATLANTA FALCONS (4-12, 3RD)

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan

Key free-agent additions: G Jon Asamoah (Kansas City), WR/KR Devin Hester (Chicago), DE Tyson Jackson (Kansas City), TE Bear Pascoe (New York Giants), DT Paul Soliai (Miami).

Key free-agent losses: FS Thomas DeCoud (Carolina), WR Brian Robiskie (Tennessee).

Rookies: OT Jake Matthews (first round, Texas A&M), DT Ra’shede Hageman (second, Minnesota), SS Dezmen Southward (third, Wisconsin), RB Devonta Freeman (fourth, Florida State), LB Prince Shembo (fourth, Notre Dame), CB Ricardo Allen (fifth, Purdue), LB Marquis Spruill (fifth, Syracuse), LB Yawin Smallwood (seventh, UConn), LB Tyler Starr (seventh, South Dakota).

Analysis: Expect the Falcons to be much improved after injuries to key figures ravaged them last year. Hester’s signing gives Atlanta a proven home-run threat on special teams. The additions of Asamoah and Matthews should bolster the offensive line, which was an area of need when the Falcons entered the offseason.

It would be a surprise to see Atlanta repeat last year’s struggle. Ryan, coming off a season when he threw a career-high 17 interceptions, should have more help with a healed receiving corps.

If there’s one team within the division that can make a significant turnaround to reach the postseason this year, it’s the Falcons. Last season marked just the second time Atlanta missed the playoffs since 2008.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.