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NFL pre-camp previews: NFC South

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Today's Pre-Camp Two-a-days: NFC SOUTH | AFC South

 

ATLANTA FALCONS

Falcons at a glance

 
Atlanta Falcons
Looking for more dirt on the Falcons? Get the inside slant, stats, scores, schedules and more scoops right here.
 

Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 23-1

Training Camp: Falcons Training Facility, Flowery Branch, Ga., July 29

The Looming Question: “Will the defense be able to stop the big play this year?”

Though some viewed the 2009 Falcons season as a step back from the squad’s 11-5 campaign the year before, there were several positive takeaways from the 9-7 season. In 2010, Atlanta's primed to make a run at the NFC championship. To do so, the defense will need to surrender fewer big plays than it did in ’09.

Last season, the Falcons defense allowed 55 pass completions of 20 yards or more, just one fewer than the NFC’s worst-ranked unit, the Rams. Two acquisitions — cornerback Dunta Robinson and first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon — are top-flight talents who should help improve that number dramatically in 2010. Robinson, when healthy, is one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league. Weatherspoon, meanwhile, will play either the Sam or the Will spot, lining up next to tackle machine Curtis Lofton in the linebacker corps in his rookie season. Two of Atlanta’s best young players — defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore — come back from injury-hampered rookie seasons in 2009. In essence, that means four “new” contributors to a defense that was pretty darn good last year.

Everyone's psyched about the offense in Atlanta this season. The defense — young, uber-talented and under-the-radar — could actually end up being the stronger of the two units. If that’s the case, watch out, New Orleans.

POLL

  • Who will win the NFC South this season?
    • Falcons
    • Panthers
    • Saints
    • Bucs

Key Camp Battle: Free safety: Thomas DeCoud vs. William Moore

DeCoud had an outstanding ’09 season, but it’s Moore who has a lot of Falcons fans most excited. A 2009 second-round pick, the hard-hitting second-year man out of Mizzou missed 14 games last year with hamstring and knee injuries. He’s a guy to watch in 2010.

Early Edge: Thomas DeCoud

New Veteran in Town: Dunta Robinson, CB

The top corner in the free-agent market, Robinson leaves Houston after years of All-Pro caliber service. His seven interceptions over the past five years won’t drop the jaws of the stat geeks, but he’s a big-time player capable of taking the opposing team’s top wideout one-on-one.

Young Gun to Watch: Sean Weatherspoon, LB

Weatherspoon's a big personality. He’s one of those Twitter/YouTube “let’s market the heck out of myself” types who actually turned off a lot of teams during pre-draft interviews. He can also play some football. With 400 tackles at Missouri, playing both the inside and outside linebacker spots, he'll make an immediate impact in Atlanta.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Panthers at a glance

 
Carolina Panthers
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Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 55-1

Training Camp: Wofford College, Spartanburg, S.C., July 28th

The Looming Question: “Forget the quarterback position for a moment. Who’s actually catching the passes in Carolina this season?”

In addition to longtime team leaders Jake Delhomme and Julius Peppers, reliable No. 2 wideout Mushin Muhammad's no longer in Carolina this season, either. Muhammad’s replacement? Who knows? The Panthers finished 27th in the league in passing last season … and that was with a veteran quarterback and a No. 2 receiver. This year? Yikes.

When receivers coach Richard Williamson, a member of the original Panthers coaching staff in 1995, retired in January, the team decided to go outside the organization to find his replacement. New receivers coach Tyke Tolbert, formerly of the Bills staff, comes to Carolina with a tough task.

Dwayne Jarrett, a second-round selection out of USC in 2007, is expected to finally step it up in his fourth NFL season as the second wideout. Of course, he's done next to nothing in his three years in the league. Third-rounder Brandon LaFell is an LSU guy like his position coach Tolbert, but is still a rookie with a lot to learn. Fellow 2010 third-rounder Armanti Edwards is a converted college quarterback out of Appalachian State. Though uber-athletic and accomplished, there will be a learning curve for him, too. Other names in Panthers camp this summer are former Jets special teams ace Wallace Wright, local hero Kenny Moore and sixth-round pick David Gettis out of Baylor. Karl Hankton might make the squad for his return game abilities, but isn’t a reliable option at receiver.

In short, regardless of whether it’s Matt Moore or Jimmy Clausen under center, there are giant question marks at the wideout spot.

Here’s hoping DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart can each put up 1,500-yard rushing seasons. Hell, they may have to if the Panthers hope to have any offensive success in 2010.

Key Camp Battle: Right guard: Duke Robinson vs. Mackenzy Bernadeau vs. Geoff Schwartz

After left tackle Jordan Gross went down in ’09, the unknown Bernadeau filled in for Travelle Wharton at left guard. He was surprisingly solid. This summer, he’ll go head to head with Duke Robinson for the starting right guard gig. Geoff Schwartz is an outside possibility for the spot, too.

Early Edge: Mackenzy Bernadeau

New Veteran in Town: Wallace Wright, WR/ST

The Jets made a major push to get Wright a Pro Bowl roster spot last year, and deservedly so. He comes to Carolina with a reputation as the ultimate team guy and a gunner in on every special teams tackle. There’s an outside shot he plays a role in the passing game as a third or fourth wide receiver as well.

Young Gun to Watch: Greg Hardy, DE

Hardy, considered a first-round pick for much of his career at Ole Miss, slipped to the sixth round after a foot injury ruined his final collegiate season. With Julius Peppers in Chicago and a host of question marks along the defensive line, Hardy — if healthy — could very well end up being a starter in Carolina by season’s end. He could even be starting by opening day with a good training camp.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Saints at a glance

 
New Orleans Saints
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Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 8-1

Training Camp: Saints Training Facility, Metairie, La., July 29

The Looming Question: “Who’s going to replace longtime defensive leader Scott Fujita at strong-side linebacker?”

The Saints enjoyed what had to have been the longest Super Bowl celebration party in NFL history this winter, and both the quarterback and head coach spent last week making the rounds promoting their respective books. At some point, it’ll be time to get back to football in New Orleans, and when it is, the strong-side linebacker position will be under the spotlight for the defending champs.

After four years as a starter, veteran leader Fujita signed with Cleveland as a free agent this offseason. Perhaps even more valuable as a mentor and teacher for the younger guys on the roster than as the man making key tackles, he'll no doubt be missed in Greg Williams’ defense.

Left in his wake is a slew of rather unknown young candidates for the starting gig. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, a three-year vet who went undrafted in 2007, filled in admirably for Fujita when he was out two games with an injury in ’08 and started three games in 2009. He finished the ’09 Super Bowl season on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Is he capable of being a full-time NFL starter? Another option is Troy Evans, a nine-year veteran who's been primarily a special teams player over the years. Stanley Arnoux, Jonathan Casillas and rookie Sam Maxwell are long-shot possibilities for the strong-side LB spot, too. If jettisoned veteran Clint Ingram’s surgically repaired knee is OK, he could be the guy as well, I guess.

Whoever it is, he won’t be Fujita. That’s a loss both on the field and off it.

Key Camp Battle: Left tackle: Jermon Bushrod vs. Charles Brown

The left tackle spot is Bushrod’s coming into camp, but there’s lots of good buzz on Brown. Sure, Bushrod stepped up in Jammal Brown’s absence last season and protected Drew Brees’ blind side during the Super Bowl run. But big-time pass rushers like Dwight Freeney (on a bad ankle, no less) and DeMarcus Ware gave him fits. Brown's a solid backup who could very well be the long-term answer. If he dominates in training camp, the job could be his.

New Veteran in Town: Alex Brown, DE

Longtime vet Charles Grant didn’t play a role in the Saints’ postseason run to the Lombardi Trophy and was released after the season. Brown, made expendable after the Bears signed Julius Peppers, comes to town with a desire to prove he’s still the pass-rushing terror he was back in his rookie season in 2002. He’ll get every chance to do just that in Greg Williams’ attacking defense.

Young Gun to Watch: Jimmy Graham, TE

Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas are veteran tight ends who each played different roles in the Saints offense last season. Graham, a Miami guy like Shockey, is a 6-foot-8 former hoops star with unlimited potential. He could end up being another red-zone target for Drew Brees. Talk about being spoiled.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Buccaneers at a glance

 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Looking for more dirt on the Buccaneers? Get the inside slant, stats, scores, schedules and more scoops right here.
 

Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 100-1

Training Camp: One Buccaneer Place, Tampa, Fla., July 30

The Looming Question: “What’s Plan B if Donald Penn doesn’t show up for training camp?”

Penn looked like an All-Pro left tackle during the first few weeks of the 2009 season, showing agility and strength that surprised even his Tampa coaches. He then began putting on weight over the course of the second half of the season and saw the quality of his play diminish.

When the ’09 campaign ended, Penn refused to sign his $3.168 million tender, and the Bucs exercised their option to reduce the offer to 110 percent of his 2009 salary, a loss of about $100,000. So, here’s Penn looking for a long-term lucrative deal, and there’s the Bucs front office denying him a long-termer and actually reducing his offer.

That wasn’t it, though.

General manager Mark Dominik then came out and said publicly during a fan Q-and-A session he was disappointed in Penn for putting on 40 pounds over the second half of the season. Dominik's since apologized, but the two sides appear to be at an impasse. Rumors swirled that Penn was tipping the scales at 380 pounds earlier this summer. Penn's since told reporters he's lost 30 pounds since the end of last season and is in great shape. Dominik and coach Raheem Morris have each spoken with the talented left tackle, but apparently none of those discussions have been about a long-term deal.

So, who’s filling in for Penn and blocking Josh Freeman’s blind side? Well, a guy who's really only played three years of organized football, of course. That’s right, Demar Dotson, an untested 6-foot-9 lineman with far more basketball than football experience, is being thrown into the fire at left tackle this summer.

After just one season as a defensive lineman at Southern Mississippi, Dotson signed with Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent in May ’09. Last year, he played admirably in nine games as a backup right tackle. After showing incredible athleticism and potential, the one-time long-term project could end up being the short-term answer.

Buc fans who are downright horrified about the future of both their team and prized quarterback may want to take a look at the recent history of the left tackle position in pewter. Penn, like Dotson, was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2007. He took over the starting gig for injured Luke Petigout and 44 starts later, never looked back.

Who knows? Maybe Dotson can have similar success in relief of Penn.

Key Camp Battle: Left guard: Jeremy Zuttah vs. Keydrick Vincent

While left tackle garners the most attention in Tampa this summer, left guard should make for the best training camp battle. Zuttah had peaks and valleys in his first year as a starter in 2009. Vincent, a free agent signed from rival Carolina in the offseason, is a veteran presence looking to take Zuttah’s job.

Early Edge: Jeremy Zuttah

New Veteran in Town: Reggie Brown, WR

With a wide receiver corps that’s both young and freakishly athletic, Brown, acquired via trade with the Eagles, provides a rare veteran set of hands for Josh Freeman. Brown had a strong showing in OTAs and should battle second-year man Sammy Stroughter and longtime vet Michael Clayton for the starting third wideout spot. It’s quite possible two rookies — Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams — start as Tampa’s first and second wide receivers in 2010.

Young Gun to Watch: Brian Price, DT

First-round pick Gerald McCoy is going to get the bulk of the media attention in 2010, but fellow rookie DT Brian Price could make quite an impact, too. At 6-foot-1, 303 pounds, he made a habit of living in opponents’ backfields at UCLA. In 2009, he was fourth in the nation in tackles for loss with 23.5. He’s already working with ex-Tampa great Warren Sapp, and the early returns are positive. With Price, McCoy and second-year man Roy Miller, the Bucs could end up featuring three of the top young DTs in the division for years to come.

Tagged: Falcons, Bears, Browns, Saints, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Drew Brees, Alex Brown, Jeremy Shockey, Julius Peppers, Dunta Robinson, Reggie Brown, David Thomas, DeAngelo Williams, Donald Penn, Wallace Wright, Jermon Bushrod, Matt Moore, Geoff Schwartz, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Jeremy Zuttah, Thomas DeCoud, Duke Robinson, Josh Freeman, William Moore, Demar Dotson, Brian Price, Jimmy Graham, Charles Brown, Sean Weatherspoon, Greg Hardy, Mike Williams, Sam Maxwell

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