LAST YEAR: Led NFL in scoring, made improbable jump from 8-8 finish in 2015 to Super Bowl before blowing 28-3 second-half lead against Patriots. Collapse left Falcons still seeking first NFL championship. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, whose play-calling chemistry with QB Matt Ryan was crucial to big season, left to become San Francisco’s coach. Steve Sarkasian was hired as offensive coordinator and Marquand Manuel was promoted to defensive coordinator.
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IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DT Dontari Poe, DE Jack Crawford, FB Derrick Coleman, WR Andre Roberts, rookie DE Takkarist McKinley, Sarkasian.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: DT Jonathan Babineaux, OG Chris Chester, FB Patrick DiMarco, TE Jacob Tamme, LB Paul Worrilow, DE Dwight Freeney, WR Eric Weems, SS Dashon Goldson, LB Philip Wheeler.
CAMP NEEDS: Team hopes first-round pick McKinley has recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. Uncertainty about McKinley’s status grew when he missed minicamp due to NFL rule that forced him to complete academic year at UCLA, where he continued rehabilitation. Manuel must work key newcomers, including Poe, Crawford and McKinley, into defensive mix. CB Desmond Trufant will be watched closely in return from season-ending pectoral injury. Sarkasian must install his tweaks to offense that doesn’t need drastic changes. Finding replacement starter for Chester is priority.
EXPECTATIONS: Anything short of return to playoffs would be big disappointment. Coach Dan Quinn used upbeat demeanor to pump up team’s spirits in offseason after devastating Super Bowl loss. Improved depth and experience on young defense should help. Opening new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium adds excitement. Best reason to expect team to again challenge for first title is high-scoring attack led by Ryan, WR Julio Jones and RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (9-7)
OPEN CAMP: July 28, One Buccaneer Place, Tampa, Florida.
LAST YEAR: Jameis Winston led team to first winning record in six years, topping 4,000 yards passing for second straight season. But three-game improvement, made possible by defense that played better as year progressed, wasn’t enough to land club’s first playoff berth since 2007. Mike Evans had 96 receptions for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns, especially impressive considering absence of consistent running game with Doug Martin sidelined much of year because of injuries and suspension for violating NFL’s policy on performance enhancers.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR DeSean Jackson, DE Chris Baker, rookie TE O.J. Howard, rookie S Justin Evans, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, K Nick Folk, rookie WR Chris Godwin, S J.J. Wilcox.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: QB Mike Glennon, WR Russell Shepard, TE Brandon Myers, RT Gosder Cherilus, DT Akeem Spence, LB Daryl Smith, CB Alterraun Verner, S Bradley McDougald.
CAMP NEEDS: Additions of Jackson, Howard and Godwin give Winston three more playmakers in offense striving to become more explosive. Top priority in camp figures to be ensuring defense that got better in 2016 continues on that path. First step was retaining coordinator Mike Smith, former Atlanta coach who turned down opportunities for other vacancies last winter. One of more intriguing battles will be Folk vs. Roberto Aguayo, 2016 second-round draft pick who’s struggled to make transition from outstanding college performer to reliable pro kicker.
EXPECTATIONS: After flirting with playoff berth in Winston’s second season, anything short of contending for NFC South title and ending franchise’s nine-year postseason drought will be major disappointment. Protection of young quarterback should be better with Ali Marpet shifting from right guard to center to make room for J.R. Sweezy, who returns from back surgery that sidelined him last season. Speedy Jackson gives Winston deep threat to go with Evans, who figures to attract more single coverage because of attention Jackson will command. Defensive leader Gerald McCoy is one of NFL’s best tackles, but has never been part of playoff team. Entering eighth season, with supporting cast that includes Baker, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, Robert Ayers, Noah Spence, Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves III, pressure is mounting on five-time Pro Bowl selection to help Winston get Bucs into postseason.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (7-9)
OPEN CAMP: July 27, New Orleans Saints headquarters, Metairie, Louisiana.
LAST YEAR: New Orleans was competitive in most games thanks to league-leading offense run by QB Drew Brees, but posted third consecutive 7-9 record because porous defense and some game-turning special teams blunders. Lack of depth on defense was exposed by injuries to CBs P.J. Williams and Delvin Breaux; club’s top 2016 draft choice, DT Sheldon Rankins; top LB Dannell Ellerbe; and speedy edge pass rusher Hau’oli Kikaha. Saints struggled to pressure opposing QBs, and by extension, maintain coverage on receivers. Offensively, Saints have been elite since pairing of coach Sean Payton and Brees in 2006. No sign of decline yet, even with Brees 38 years old. WR Michael Thomas’ quick adjustment to pro game and ability to make difficult catches were evident.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: RB Adrian Peterson, rookie CB Marshon Lattimore, LB A.J. Klein, RG Larry Warford, rookie LT Ryan Ramczyk, rookie S Marcus Williams, rookie RB Alvin Kamara, LB Manti Te’o, receivers coach Curtis Johnson, linebackers coach Mike Nolan, special teams coach Brad Banta.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: WR Brandin Cooks, DT Nick Fairley, RG Jahri Evans, S Jairus Byrd, RB Tim Hightower, LS Justin Drescher, receivers coach John Morton.
CAMP NEEDS: Largely because of injuries, Saints want to see young players emerge at defensive tackle and offensive tackle. Saints re-signed Fairley during offseason, only to have him go on non-football injury reserve list because of career-threatening heart condition. Starting LT Terron Armstead recently needed shoulder surgery expected to sideline him at least until November. Second-year pro David Onyemata could see elevated role at DT alongside Rankins. Ramczyk could be pressed into crucial starting role as rookie. Also key will be development of Lattimore and Williams in secondary. Saints also will have new long snapper and will be developing center in event starter Max Unger can’t return from foot surgery by regular season opener.
EXPECTATIONS: Tough NFC South including defending NFC champ Atlanta means Saints could struggle and miss fourth straight playoffs, which also would raise questions about Payton’s future. Brees has just this season left under contract, so twilight of record-setting career could hinge on Saints’ success or failure as well. To win, Saints will need handful of players within first three pro seasons to develop and improve quickly.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (6-10)
OPEN CAMP: July 25, Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina
LAST YEAR: QB Cam Newton suffered through worst statistical season of career, injury-plagued offensive line failed to protect adequately, and young secondary struggled early against pass. Panthers went from being No. 1 offense in 2015 to 19th, prompting them to spend first two draft picks on versatile RB Christian McCaffrey and WR Curtis Samuel, and add pieces on O-line. Newton played final month of season with partially torn rotator cuff. Concussions ended seasons of two key starters: LB Luke Kuechly and OT Michael Oher. Oher has since been released after failing physical. K Graham Gano missed several big field goals, causing team to draft Harrison Butker to compete. TE Greg Olsen had strong season, clearly team MVP in 2016. Entire defensive line returns along with free agent pickup Julius Peppers. Panthers were second in sacks last season (47) but defense finished out of top 10 for first time in five years.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Peppers, OT Matt Kalil, CB Captain Munnerlyn, WR Charles Johnson, rookies McCaffrey and Samuel, S Mike Adams.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: OT Michael Oher, OT Mike Remmers, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Philly Brown, FB Mike Tolbert, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, GM Dave Gettleman, assistant GM Brandon Beane.
CAMP NEEDS: All eyes will be on Newton, who’s returning from right shoulder surgery. He’s expected to throw at training camp and should be ready for season opener. Matt Kalil, Ryan’s brother, takes over at LT, but RT position up for grabs between Daryl Williams and rookie Taylor Moton. Olsen, LB Thomas Davis up for contract extensions. Team already extended contracts of DT Kawann Short and G Trai Turner this offseason. Kuechly returns after missing last six games in 2016 with concussion.
EXPECTATIONS: Panthers going for it all after finishing 6-10 one season following reaching Super Bowl. They have one of most experienced teams in league, particularly with addition of free agents Peppers, Munnerlyn and Adams on defense. Team added versatile playmakers in McCaffrey and Samuel on offense to take pressure off Newton, whose production dipped significantly last season. Carolina’s well positioned to challenge for fourth NFC South title in five years and another conference championship while playing fourth-place schedule.
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