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NFL training camp: NFC South team-by-team preview

Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers celebrates during

Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers celebrates during their NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium on January 3, 2015 in Charlotte, N.C. Credit: Getty Images


OPEN CAMP: July 31, Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina.

LAST YEAR: Panthers battled back from 3-8-1 record to become first team to repeat as NFC South champions -- despite finishing with losing record. It was rough season for QB Cam Newton, who had offseason ankle surgery, fractured two ribs in preseason and later broke two bones in his back following automobile accident several blocks from team's stadium.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WRs Ted Ginn Jr. and Devi Funchess; OTs Michael Oher and Jonathan Martin; CBs Charles Tillman and Chris Houston; S Kurt Coleman; LB Shaq Thompson.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: DE Greg Hardy; RB DeAngelo Williams; S Thomas DeCoud; OT Byron Bell.

CAMP NEEDS: Panthers locked up Newton, TE Greg Olsen and LB Thomas Davis with long-term deals, keeping three key core players in place. They're hoping Oher is upgrade over Bell at left tackle and does better job protecting Newton's blind side. Carolina has added weapons for fifth-year QB by bringing back Ginn and drafting Funchess in second round. Team is also high on WR Corey Brown and likes re-emergence of WR Stephen Hill. Thompson, team's first-round pick, is expected to add speed to defense.

EXPECTATIONS: Panthers didn't lose much from last season and GM Dave Gettleman didn't have many holes to fill. With Newton healthy entering season, Panthers have to be considered favorite to take home another division title. Carolina was young team last year and played several rookies and first-year guys. Now those players have some experience and that should be beneficial this season.


OPEN CAMP: July 31, Flowery Branch, Georgia.

LAST YEAR: Falcons' second straight losing record, following five straight winning seasons, cost coach Mike Smith his job. Team lost four starting offensive linemen to season-ending injuries. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, expected to be defense's top playmaker, hit IR before season. WR Julio Jones had big year with 104 catches for 1,593 yards, but defense gave up league's most total yards and yards passing. Atlanta's 22 sacks were second fewest in league.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Coach Dan Quinn; CB Phillip Adams; DE Adrian Clayborn; LBs Brooks Reed, Justin Durant and O'Brien Schofield; WR Leonard Hankerson; TEs Tony Moeaki and Jacob Tamme.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: OT Sam Baker; OG Justin Blalock; WR Harry Douglas; RBs Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers;, S Dwight Lowery; DEs Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi; CB Robert McClain; DT Corey Peters; LBs Weatherspoon and Prince Shembo.

CAMP NEEDS: With Jackson gone, hole must be filled at running back. Rookie Tevin Coleman and second-year player Devonta Freeman are top candidates to start. First-round pick DE Vic Beasley will look to show he can be impact player as edge rusher. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will install zone-blocking scheme on line. Second-year LT Jake Matthews and guard Chris Chester, who played in this scheme in Washington, must develop chemistry. Starter must emerge at tight end, where newcomers Tamme and Moeaki will compete with Levine Toilolo.

EXPECTATIONS: QB Matt Ryan is 30 and WR Roddy White is 33, so there is sense of urgency to rebuilding job under first-year head coach Quinn. Defense was a fiasco last year, and there are big questions at running back and on offensive line, so .500 finish would show Quinn is on right track.


OPEN CAMP: July 31, Tampa.

LAST YEAR: One of NFL's biggest disappointments under first-year coach Lovie Smith and rookie general manager Jason Licht, who inherited talented young roster they augmented by spending generously in free agency. Most moves fizzled, and to make matters worse, health issues sidelined offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford during preseason and he never returned. 2-14 finish was Tampa Bay's worst in 28 years. Smith and Licht owned up to their mistakes, releasing three high-priced free agent acquisitions -- QB Josh McCown, DE Michael Johnson and OT Anthony Collins -- after just one year.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: QB Jameis Winston; LB Bruce Carter; DT Henry Melton; S Chris Conte; CB Sterling Moore; DE George Johnson; T Donovan Smith; G Ali Marpet.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: S Dashon Goldson; LB Mason Foster.

CAMP NEEDS: With Winston coming in as No. 1 overall draft pick, there's not only pressure to play him right away but be successful early. August will be all about getting him ready for season opener, likely showdown with Tennessee's Marcus Mariota, No. 2 pick in draft. Will be important, too, to determine how quickly two other draft picks, second-rounders Smith and Marpet, can be integrated into offensive line that will have to protect Winston and open holes for running attack that needs to be more productive to take some burden off young QB.

EXPECTATIONS: Bucs have missed playoffs past seven seasons, but aren't typical team coming off a two-win season and expecting to take modest step forward while growing with rookie QB. Carolina won NFC South with losing record last year, and there's enough talent on offense and defense to close gap in hurry. Winston has pair of receivers in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson coming off 1,000-yard seasons. RB Doug Martin is one-time 1,000-yard rusher hoping to regain form. Ultimately, though, escaping basement for first time in five years figures to come down to how quickly Winston develops in new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's scheme, and whether defense anchored by Pro Bowl tackle Gerald McCoy and LB Lavonte David can do its part.


OPEN CAMP: July 29, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

LAST YEAR: Saints failed to qualify for playoffs. QB Drew Brees tied for NFL lead in yards passing with 4,952. But he also threw 17 interceptions, five more than in 2013. Saints struggled most defensively, ranking second-to-last in NFL. Coach Sean Payton responded by adding Dennis Allen as senior defensive assistant coach and purging roster of several players.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: RB C.J. Spiller; C Max Unger; CB Brandon Browner; LBs Dannell Ellerbe, Anthony Spencer and Hau'oli Kikaha; DT Kevin Williams; T Andrus Peat.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: TE Jimmy Graham; OLB Junior Galette; WR Kenny Stills; LG Ben Grubbs; RB Pierre Thomas; LB Curtis Lofton; CBs Patrick Robinson and Corey White; K Shayne Graham.

CAMP NEEDS: Payton and Brees will have to figure out how to replace 148 catches for 1,820 yards and 13 TDs Graham and Stills combined for last season. In addition, departure of Thomas, who had 45 catches for 378 yards, removes reliable check-down option. Saints will look to Spiller as similar type of run-pass threat Thomas was. New Orleans also wants young TE Josh Hill to build on promising 2014 season and pair with veteran Ben Watson to make position credible passing target. Defensively, making up for loss of Galette's 10 sacks last season could fall on Spencer and rookie Kikaha. Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete are competing to replace Grubbs.

EXPECTATIONS: If 36-year-old Brees stays healthy, he has proved over past decade he can make Payton's offense among NFL's best, regardless who is running pass routes. With addition of Browner and return of former Pro Bowl S Jairus Byrd from injury, secondary should be better. If New Orleans also can mount pass rush, defense could improve markedly, giving Saints chance to be more competitive.

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