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NFL Preview: NFC South

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The Sports Xchange

One week before the 2015 regular season begins, here is a snapshot of the NFC South teams through the eyes of Sports Xchange correspondents covering each team.

Next week The Sports Xchange will analyze every unit on every team and project order of finish in each division

Teams here are listed in alphabetical order:

ATLANTA FALCONS

2014 RECORD: 6-10

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 5-1

COACH: Dan Quinn

1st season as Falcons

1st season as NFL head coach

–TEAM STRENGTH: The Falcons’ passing attack remains the backbone of the team. Quarterback Matt Ryan, when given time to find his receivers, can shred a defenses. He has Julio Jones, Roddy White and Leonard Hankerson as his top targets.

–BIGGEST QUESTION: Can the Falcons get the running backs moving. The team has averaged 1.9 yards per carry during the exhibition season. We probably will not get any answers about this until the Falcons settle on a starting offensive line, coupled with the return of running back Devonta Freeman, who has been out because of a hamstring injury.

THE PLAYERS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Matt Ryan. Backups — Rex Grossman, T.J. Yates, Sean Renfree.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Devonta Freeman, FB Patrick DiMarco. Backups — Tevin Coleman, Antone Smith, Terron Ward, Jerome Smith, FB Collin Mooney.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Julio Jones, Roddy White. Backups — Leonard Hankerson, Devin Hester, Justin Hardy, Nick Williams, Eric Weems, Carlton Mitchell.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jacob Tamme. Backups — Tony Moeaki, Levine Toilolo, D.J. Tialavea.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Jake Matthews, LG Mike Person, C Joe Hawley, RG Chris Chester, RT Ryan Schraeder. Backups — T Tyler Polumbus, T Jake Rogers, T Pierce Burton, G Mike Person, G Jared Smith, C James Stone, C Adam Replogle. Others: T Lamar Holmes (backup, PUP).

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DRE Vic Beasley Jr., DT Ra’Shede Hageman, NT Paul Soliai, DLE Tyson Jackson. Backups — DE Kroy Biermann, DE Malliciah Goodman, DE Stansly Maponga, DE Adrian Clayborn, DE Cliff Matthews, DT Joey Mbu, DT Jonathan Babineaux, DT Grady Jarrett.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Brooks Reed, MLB Paul Worrilow, WLB Justin Durant. Backups — Allen Bradford, O’Brien Schofield, Joplo Bartu, Derek Akunne, Nate Stupar, Terrell Manning, Tyler Starr.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Desmond Trufant, SS William Moore, FS Ricardo Allen, RCB Robert Alford. Backups — CB Jalen Collins, CB Kevin White, CB Travis Howard, CB Phillip Adams, CB Dezmen Southward, CB Akeem King, S Sean Baker, S Robenson Therezie, S Kemal Ishmael, S Charles Godfrey.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Bryant, P Matt Bosher, KR/PR Devin Hester, LS Josh Harris.

2015 SCHEDULE

Strength of schedule:

Overall .410; Division .344; Non-Division .450.

All times Eastern

Sept. 14, PHILADELPHIA (Mon.), 7:10

Sept. 20, at N.Y. Giants, 1:00

Sept. 27, at Dallas, 1:00

Oct. 4, HOUSTON, 1:00

Oct. 11, WASHINGTON, 1:00

Oct. 15, at New Orleans (Thu.), 8:25

Oct. 25, at Tennessee, 1:00

Nov. 1, TAMPA BAY, 1:00

Nov. 8, at San Francisco, 4:05

Nov. 15, OPEN DATE,

Nov. 22, INDIANAPOLIS, 1:00

Nov. 29, MINNESOTA, 1:00

Dec. 6, at Tampa Bay, 1:00

Dec. 13, at Carolina, 1:00

Dec. 20, at Jacksonville, 1:00

Dec. 27, CAROLINA, 1:00

Jan. 3, NEW ORLEANS, 1:00

CAROLINA PANTHERS

2014 RECORD: 7-8-1

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 4-2

COACH: Ron Rivera

5th season as Panthers

5th season as NFL head coach

33-33-1 overall; 1-2 postseason

–TEAM STRENGTH: Linebackers. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis were arguably the league’s top tandem at linebacker, and now they are joined by Shaq Thompson. Many felt the Panthers took a reach when they used their first-round pick on Thompson, but his athleticism should allow the defense to counter possible mismatches.

–BIGGEST QUESTION: Can the Panthers make up for the loss of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin? Devin Funchess might be a big body, but the second-round pick is nowhere near the level Benjamin was as a rookie. At best, Funchess could start putting up No. 1 receiver numbers midway through the season. The Panthers don’t have much else behind him, which makes tight end Greg Olsen the top target for quarterback Cam Newton.

THE PLAYERS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Cam Newton. Backups — Derek Anderson, Joe Webb.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — DeAngelo Williams, FB Mike Tolbert. Backups — Cameron Artis-Payne, Fozzy Whittaker, Jordan Todman, Brandon Wegher.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Greg Olsen. Backups — Ed Dickson, Brandon Williams, Richie Brockel, Marcus Lucas, Scott Simonson.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Ted Ginn, Jerricho Cotchery. Backups — Brenton Bersin, Corey Brown, Mike Brown, Damiere Byrd, Devin Funchess, Kevin Norwood.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Michael Oher, LG Andrew Norwell, C Ryan Kalil, RG Trai Turner, RT Mike Remmers. Backups — C Brian Folkerts, G Ricky Henry, G Jordan McCray, G Chris Scott, G Amini Silatolu, T Nate Chandler, T David Foucault, T Martin Wallace, T Daryl Williams.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DRE Kony Ealy, DLE Charles Johnson, DT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short. Backups — DE Mario Addison, DE Rakim Cox, DE Wes Horton, DE Arthur Miley, DT Chas Alecxih, DT Colin Cole, DT Dwan Edwards, DT Kyle Love, DT Terry Redden.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Thomas Davis, MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Shaq Thompson. Backups — Brian Blechen, Adarius Glanton, Ben Jacobs, A.J. Klein, David Mayo, Jason Trusnik.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Charles Tillman, RCB Josh Norman, FS Roman Harper, SS Kurt Coleman. Backups — CB Bene Benwikere, CB Carrington Byndom, CB T.J. Heath, CB Teddy Williams, CB Lou Young, S Marcus Ball, S Tre Boston, S Colin Jones, S Dean Marlowe.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Graham Gano, P Brad Nortman, LS J.J. Jansen, KOR Jordan Todman, PR Ted Ginn.

2015 SCHEDULE

Strength of schedule:

Overall .434; Division 313; Non-Division .546

All times Eastern

Sept. 13, at Jacksonville, 1:00

Sept. 20, HOUSTON, 1:00

Sept. 27, NEW ORLEANS, 1:00

Oct. 4, at Tampa Bay, 1:00

Oct. 11, OPEN DATE

Oct. 18, at Seattle, 4:05

Oct. 25, PHILADELPHIA, 8:30

Nov. 2, INDIANAPOLIS (Mon.), 8:30

Nov. 8, GREEN BAY, 1:00

Nov. 15, at Tennessee, 1:00

Nov. 22, WASHINGTON, 1:00

Nov. 26, at Dallas (Thu.), 4:30

Dec. 6, at New Orleans, 1:00

Dec. 13, ATLANTA, 1:00

Dec. 20, at N.Y. Giants, 1:00

Dec. 27, at Atlanta, 1:00

Jan. 3, TAMPA BAY, 1:00

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

2014 RECORD: 7-9

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 3-3

COACH: Sean Payton

9th season as Saints

9th season as NFL head coach

86-52 overall; 6-4 postseason

–TEAM STRENGTH: It doesn’t happen often, but the Saints have question marks in the passing game — like if they can protect quarterback Drew Brees adequately and who will rise up and be the No. 3 and 4 wide receivers behind Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks. That means the Saints might have to rely on the running game, as they did in 2009 and 2011 — when they won 13 games both years. They feel they can do some big things with Mark Ingram, who had a breakout year in 2014 with 964 rushing yards and nine touchdowns despite missing three games because of a hand injury, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson. The addition of Spiller, who had his knee scoped on Aug. 14 but should be ready for the regular season, could give them a good running-receiving threat and Robinson has been a hard runner who has averaged better than 4.0 yards per carry since making the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2013.

–BIGGEST QUESTION: Who will replace the production in the passing game tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Kenny Stills took with them when they were traded in separate deals in March. They combined for 148 receptions, 1,820 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, numbers that won’t easily be duplicated. Still, the Saints believe that Benjamin Watson, who has had a solid summer, and Josh Hill will be viable options for Drew Brees at tight end, while shifty wideout Brandin Cooks received glowing praise from Patriots coach Bill Belichick after the two teams practiced in training camp. Cooks will try to build on a rookie season that saw him catch 53 passes for 550 yards and three touchdowns before a broken thumb sidelined him for the final six games.

THE PLAYERS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Drew Brees. Backups — Luke McCown, Ryan Griffin, Garrett Grayson.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Mark Ingram, FB Austin Johnson. Backups — C.J. Spiller, Khiry Robinson, Tim Hightower, Marcus Murphy, Edwin Baker, FB Toben Opurum.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Benjamin Watson. Backups — Josh Hill, Alex Smith. Others: Orson Charles (backup, suspended 1 game).

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks. Backups — Brandon Coleman, Joseph Morgan, Willie Snead, Josh Morgan, Seantavius Jones.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Terron Armstead, LG Tim Lelito, C Max Unger, RG Jahri Evans, RT Zach Strief. Backups — T Andrus Peat, G Mike McGlynn, T Bryce Harris, G Senio Kelemete, T Nick Becton, G Cyril Lemon, G Sean Hickey, C Mike Golic Jr.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE Akiem Hicks, DLT John Jenkins, DRT Kevin Williams, DRE Cameron Jordan. Backups — DE Bobby Richardson, DT Tyeler Davison, DE Parys Haralson, DE Tavaris Barnes, DT Ashaad Mabry, DE Kaleb Eulis.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Dannell Ellerbe, MLB Stephone Anthony, SLB Hau’oli Kikaha. Backups — MLB David Hawthorne, WLB Ramon Humber, SLB Kasim Edebali, SLB Davis Tull, WLB Henry Coley, MLB Jerry Franklin, MLB Justin Anderson.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Keenan Lewis, RCB Brandon Browner, FS Rafael Bush, SS Kenny Vaccaro. Backups — CB Delvin Breaux, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB Damian Swann, CB Brian Dixon, S Pierre Warren, CB Kyle Wilson, S Jamarca Sanford, S Kenny Phillips, CB Sammy Seamster. Others: FS Jairus Byrd (starter, PUP).

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Dustin Hopkins, K Zach Hocker, P Thomas Morstead, LS Justin Drescher, KOR Marcus Murphy, PR Marcus Murphy.

2015 SCHEDULE

Strength of schedule:

Overall .430; Division .323; Non-Division .494.

All times Eastern

Sept. 13, at Arizona, 4:05

Sept. 20, TAMPA BAY, 1:00

Sept. 27, at Carolina, 1:00

Oct. 4, DALLAS, 8:30

Oct. 11, at Philadelphia, 1:00

Oct. 15, ATLANTA (Thu.), 8:25

Oct. 25, at Indianapolis, 1:00

Nov. 1, N.Y. GIANTS, 1:00

Nov. 8, TENNESSEE, 1:00

Nov. 15, at Washington, 1:00

Nov. 22, OPEN DATE

Nov. 29, at Houston, 1:00

Dec. 6, CAROLINA, 1:00

Dec. 13, at Tampa Bay, 1:00

Dec. 21, DETROIT (Mon.), 8:30

Dec. 27, JACKSONVILLE, 1:00

Jan. 3, at Atlanta, 1:00

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

2014 Record: 2-14

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 0-6

COACH: Lovie Smith

2nd season with Buccaneers

2-14 overall

11th season as NFL head coach

86-80 overall; 3-3 postseason

–TEAM STRENGTH: The Buccaneers have some fast run-and-hit linebackers. Lavonte David, who has more than 400 tackles in his first three pro seasons, is a former All-Pro and now is making more plays in pass coverage. He will be joined this season by LSU rookie Kwon Alexander, a fourth-round pick who will start at middle linebacker. Strong-side linebacker Danny Lansanah is no slouch. He had three interceptions last season, including two he returned for touchdowns. And backup Bruce Carter had five interceptions for Dallas last season.

–BIGGEST QUESTION: Can the Bucs’ mostly inexperienced offensive line, with two rookie starters, protect quarterback Jameis Winston? The Bucs have allowed 13 sacks in three preseason games, the most of any NFL team. And the unit is very thin, so they can’t sustain any injuries.

THE PLAYERS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Jameis Winston. Backups — Mike Glennon, Seth Lobato.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Doug Martin, FB Jorvorski Lane. Backups — Charles Sims, Mike James, Bobby Rainey.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Backups — Brandon Myers, Luke Stocker, Cameron Brate.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans. Backups — Russell Shepard, Kenny Bell, Taverres King, Adam Humphries.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Donovan Smith, LG Logan Mankins, C Evan Smith, RG Ali Marpet, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups — T Demar Dotson, T Kevin Pamphile, T Edawn Coughman, G Kadeem Edwards, G Matthew Masifilo, C Jeremiah Warren.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LE George Johnson, NT Clinton McDonald, DT Gerald McCoy, RDE Jacquies Smith. Backups — DE T.J. Fatinikun, DT Henry Melton, DT Tony McDaniel, DT William Gholston, DE Larry English, DE Lawrence Sidbury, DE Ryan Delaire, DE Caushaud Lyons.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Lavonte David, MLB Kwon Alexander, SLB Danny Lansanah. Backups — Bruce Carter, Larry Dean, Jason Williams, Khaseem Greene, Josh Keyes.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Alterraun Verner, RCB Johnthan Banks, SS Major Wright, FS Bradley McDougald. Backups — S Chris Conte, S Keith Tandy, Chris Hackett, CB Mike Jenkins, CB Isaiah Frey, CB Sterling Moore, CB Brandon Dixon, Jude Adjei-Barimah.

SPECIALISTS: K Patrick Murray, P Jacob Schum, LS Andrew DaPaola, PR Kaelin Clay, KOR Kaelin Clay, K Connor Barth, K Kyle Brindza, KR Bobby Rainey.

2015 SCHEDULE

Strength of schedule:

Overall .426; Division .427; Non-Division .425.

All times Eastern

Sept. 13, TENNESSEE, 4:25

Sept. 20, at New Orleans, 1:00

Sept. 27, at Houston, 1:00

Oct. 4, CAROLINA, 1:00

Oct. 11, JACKSONVILLE, 1:00

Oct. 18, OPEN DATE,

Oct. 25, at Washington, 1:00

Nov. 1, at Atlanta, 1:00

Nov. 8, N.Y. GIANTS, 4:05

Nov. 15, DALLAS, 1:00

Nov. 22, at Philadelphia, 1:00

Nov. 29, at Indianapolis, 1:00

Dec. 6, ATLANTA, 1:00

Dec. 13, NEW ORLEANS, 1:00

Dec. 17, at St. Louis (Thu.), 8:25

Dec. 27, CHICAGO, 1:00

Jan. 3, at Carolina, 1:00

–Correspondents covering each team for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this report. Next week The Sports Xchange will analyze every unit on every team and project order of finish in each division


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