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NFL Preview: Saints in tight NFC South race

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The Sports Xchange

Although the New Orleans Saints were the choice to win the NFC South division title according to a poll of The Sports Xchange football staff, Carolina and Atlanta each received first-place votes and finished close behind.

At opposite ends of the results, the Saints grabbed first-place picks by 60 percent of those polled while the Tampa Bay Bucs were only one vote away from being a unanimous pick for last place in the division.

Here is a closer look at the NFC South teams for 2015, listed in order of predicted finish by The Sports Xchange:

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 1st

2014 RECORD: 7-9

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 3-3

COACH: Sean Payton

9th season as Saints/NFL head coach

86-52 overall; 6-4 postseason

Strength of schedule:

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

–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 CONCERN: 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.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

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

Brees will be out to show that he still has it after a disappointing 2014 season that saw him throw 17 interceptions, lose three fumbles and take 29 sacks — the most since he joined the team in 2006. He still had good numbers, however, in completing 69.2 percent of his passes for 4,952 yards and 33 touchdowns that produced a passer rating of 97.0. McCown was solid in preseason play, which assured himself of a third season as Brees’ backup, and Grayson, a third-round draft pick, was shaky at times but still won the No. 3 job over Ryan Griffin.

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

The Saints finished 13th in the NFL in rushing last season with 113.6 yards per game, but they believe they can do better this year with Ingram, who emerged as a productive runner with 964 rushing yards and nine touchdowns even though he missed three games because of a broken hand. He and Spiller, a solid receiver out of the backfield, could give the Saints a nine 1-2 punch with Robinson, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry a year ago, and Hightower serving as the closers. Murphy could also figure into the mix even though he will primarily be a punt and kickoff returner. Johnson, a capable receiver out of the backfield, impressed last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Benjamin Watson. Backup — Josh Hill.

Watson and Hill have the task of replacing former All-Pro Jimmy Graham, but the Saints’ coaches certainly believe that they’ll be up to the job. Watson is a solid blocker and capable receiver who caught 20 passes and had three touchdowns in 2014, while Hill, who earned a roster spot as an undrafted free agent in 2013, came on last season and had five touchdowns among his 17 receptions. The Saints probably will add another player at this position, although reserve tackle Andrus Peat will be used as an extra tight end in short-yardage situations.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks. Backups — Brandon Coleman, Willie Snead.

Even though Colston’s numbers dipped a bit last season, he’s still a favorite of Drew Brees because of his size and ability to go up and catch the ball over smaller defensive backs. Colston, the franchise’s all-time leader in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, had 902 yards and five touchdowns on 59 receptions last season. He and Cooks, a speedy receiver who caught 53 passes for 550 yards and three scores last season in 10 games before a thumb injury forced him to the sidelines, should form a solid 1-2 duo for Brees. Coleman, who is similar in size to Colston, and Snead are unproven commodities who were on the Saints’ practice squad a year ago.

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, G Senio Kelemete.

This unit has a new look even though Armstead, Evans and Strief return from last season’s group that received criticism despite opening holes for the NFL’s 13th-ranked rushing attack. Evans and Strief are 10-year veterans with 15 years starting experience between them, while the athletic Armstead, who is in his second year as a starter, has been a solid player. The newcomers are Unger, a former Pro Bowl pick and a key part of the Jimmy Graham trade who is being counted on to solidify the unit, and Lelito, who moves back to his more natural position of guard after failing to win the starting center job last season. Peat, the 13th pick in this year’s draft, will learn the ropes this season. McGlynn and Kelemete provide depth inside from left guard to right guard.

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

This group tailed off last season because of injuries, particularly Hicks and nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who was released before training camp. Jordan will try to regain his Pro Bowl form of 2013, when he had 12.5 sacks, after coming up with 7.5 last season and form a nice bookend tandem on the edge with Hicks. Williams joins Jenkins, who’s getting his first shot to start, to help shut things down inside against the run. They will have to be strong early as Gwacham, Davison, Richardson, Barnes and Eulis are rookies. Gwacham was a sixth-round draft pick of the Seahawks who was claimed after being cut, while Davison was a sixth-round pick of the Saints. The latter three made the team as undrafted free agents.

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 Michael Mauti.

Ellerbe was hurt for most of the preseason, but figures to start because of his coverage abilities. Anthony, a first-round draft pick who can stop the run and also drop into coverage, and Kikaha, a second-rounder who was drafted for his pass-rushing skills, may be the impact linebackers the Saints have been seeking for years. Hawthorne and Humber, a special teams standout, are veterans who could figure into the mix, while Edebali, an undrafted free agent who made the roster last season, and Tull, a fifth-round draft pick who missed most of the off-season work and training camp with a torn labrum that required surgery last March, have also impressed the coaching staff.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Delvin Breaux, RCB Brandon Browner, FS Rafael Bush, SS Kenny Vaccaro. Backups — S Jairus Byrd, CB Keenan Lewis, CB Damian Swann, S Jamarca Sanford, CB Brian Dixon, CB Kyle Wilson.

The Saints are hurting here as two of the four projected starters, Lewis and Byrd, could miss some playing time. Lewis had hip surgery and may be out for the first four or five games, and Byrd, who played in only four games last season because of a knee injury, spent training camp on the active/PUP list. Browner, who missed the final three preseason games because of an undisclosed injury, could be back for the opener and pair with Breaux, a former CFL player who impressed with his speed and cover skills. Vaccaro and Bush are big hitters in the back end of the secondary. Swann, a fifth-round draft pick, has made plays in preseason and could earn playing time in the nickel and dime packages, while Sanford and Wilson provide the secondary with experience.

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

Hocker displayed a strong and accurate leg in beating out Dustin Hopkins for the job, making field goals of 47, 50 and 53 yards. Hocker has also knocked most of his kickoffs through the end zone. Morstead continues to be a solid weapon after averaging 46.4 gross yards and 42.9 net yards per punt with a long of 63 yards last season, while having only five touchbacks. Drescher has been flawless as the long snapper since joining the team in 2010. Murphy, a seventh-round draft pick, had flashes in the preseason on both punts and kickoffs and came close to breaking some long returns to earn a roster spot.

PRACTICE SQUAD: TE Blake Annen, WR R.J. Harris, G Sean Hickey, S Don Jones, WR Seantavius Jones, G Cyril Lemon, DT Ashaad Mabry, TE Chris Manhertz, FB Toben Opurum, CB Sammy Seamster.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 2nd

2014 RECORD: 7-8-1

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 4-2

COACH: Ron Rivera

5th season as Panthers/NFL head coach

33-33-1 overall; 1-2 postseason

Strength of schedule:

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

–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 CONCERN: 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.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

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

Newton should continue to get better in his fifth season, but he has many questions around him. Anderson recently signed an extension to remain Newton’s backup through 2017. Webb isn’t just a quarterback. He’ll also help on special teams and possibly at receiver.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Jonathan Stewart, FB Mike Tolbert. Backups — Cameron Artis-Payne, Fozzy Whittaker, Brandon Wegher.

Stewart stayed healthy through the spring and summer, but the key is keeping him that way for 16 games. Artis-Payne earned the No. 2 role, but Tolbert and Whittaker will get some carries as well.

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

With receiver Kelvin Benjamin out for the year, Olsen becomes Newton’s No. 1 target. The Panthers hope to get Dickson more involved in the passing game.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Ted Ginn, Corey Brown. Backups — Jerricho Cotchery, Devin Funchess, Kevin Norwood.

Benjamin’s knee injury plus a slow start for second-round pick Funchess makes this group appear well below average. Ginn and Brown have speed, Cotchery good hands, but it’s not a lot for Newton to play with.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Michael Oher, LG Andrew Norwell, C Ryan Kalil, RG Trai Turner, RT Mike Remmers. Backups — G Chris Scott, G Amini Silatolu, T Nate Chandler, T Daryl Williams.

Oher was fine through the summer, but the regular season is a much bigger test. Norwell, Kalil and Turner form a solid foundation in the middle. Remmers could be in a timeshare with Williams.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DRE Kony Ealy, DLE Charles Johnson, DT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short. Backups — DE Mario Addison, DE Wes Horton, DT Colin Cole, DT Dwan Edwards, DT Kyle Love.

Ealy turned it on late in camp to earn a starting job across from Johnson. Lotulelei and Short were both banged up in the preseason, but if healthy, they’re one of the best young duos in the league.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Thomas Davis, MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Shaq Thompson. Backups — Ben Jacobs, A.J. Klein, David Mayo.

This is the Panthers’ best group, featuring a couple studs in Davis and Kuechly and the athleticism of Thompson. The first-round pick will share time with Klein in the 4-3 and also drop into coverage when the Panthers play nickel.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Charles Tillman, RCB Josh Norman, FS Roman Harper, SS Kurt Coleman. Backups — CB Bene Benwikere, CB Teddy Williams, S Tre Boston, S Colin Jones, S Dean Marlowe.

Norman is an emerging talent, but Tillman has missed both of the past two seasons with triceps injuries. Coleman is a hard hitter, but he and Harper don’t have great speed. Benwikere can play on the outside and in the slot, but cornerback depth is a concern.

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

Gano went 10-for-10 on field-goal attempts in the preseason. Ginn by himself improves Carolina’s special teams, which was one of the worst units in the league last year.

PRACTICE SQUAD: DT Chas Alecxih, WR Brenton Bersin, LB Brian Blechen, CB Carrington Byndom, WR Damiere Byrd, DE Rakim Cox, OT David Foucault, LB Adarius Glanton, TE Scott Simonson, CB Lou Young.

ATLANTA FALCONS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 3rd

2014 RECORD: 6-10

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 5-1

COACH: Dan Quinn

1st season as Falcons/NFL head coach

Strength of schedule:

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

–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 CONCERN: 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.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Matt Ryan. Backup — Sean Renfree.

Ryan, who completed 72.2 percent of his passes during the exhibition season, has been sharp working in the new offense. The Falcons also made a change at backup quarterback after Renfree beat out Yates and Grossman. Renfree completed 72.2 percent of his passes and had no interceptions during the preseason. Yates only completed 60.3 percent of his passes and tossed two interceptions. The Falcons carried Renfree, a seventh-round pick out of Duke in the 2013 NFL Draft, as the third quarterback last season. He was inactive for all games and has not taken a snap in a regular-season game.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Devonta Freeman, FB Patrick DiMarco. Backups — Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward.

The Falcons’ rushing attack showed some signs of life in the exhibition finale against the Ravens, led by rookie Tevin Coleman, who flashed the speed he showed at Indiana while rushing for more than 2,000 yards last season. He rushed eight times for 56 yards. Terron Ward had a strong outing, while rushing for 69 yards on 18 carries. The Falcons are hopeful that Devonta Freeman, who suffered a hamstring injury on Aug. 6, is ready for the opener against the Eagles. He was working with the first-team offense before the injury. The Falcons like his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. The team is likely headed for a split situations with Freeman and Coleman.

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

Jones, who recently signed a five-year, $71.25 million contract extension, had a fine offseason. He’s hoping follow up a 100-catch, 1,500-yard season and become more of a factor in the red zone after scoring just six touchdowns in 2014. White, who caught 80 passes last season, had elbow surgery and missed the final two exhibition games. He’s expected to be available for the opener. White is still a precise route-runner and will make the tough catch over the middle. Hankerson and Williams, who were with Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan when he was in Washington, are steady route-runners. Hardy, a rookie, and Hester provide some depth to the unit. Weems is mostly a specials teamer.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jacob Tamme. Backup — Levine Toilolo.

Tamme is considered the pass-catcher and Toilolo, who started last season, the blocking tight end. In the exhibition season, Tamme had just one catch for 13 years and suffered a back injury. Toilolo, who struggled with his pass-catching last season, caught six passes for 66 yards. Tamme, 30, formerly of the Denver Broncos, is trying to revive his career after catching 14 and 20 passes in the past two seasons. He has played in 107 games and made 23 starts. Over his career he has caught 178 of 277 targets (64.2 percent) for 1,703 yards and 10 touchdowns. Toilolo started last season, but did not develop into the red zone threat that the Falcons envisioned when he was drafted. Toilolo played 958 snaps last season. He was the 32nd ranked (out of 35) tight ends who played more than 50 percent of his teams snaps in 2014, according to profootballfocus.com. He caught 31 of 54 targets (57.4 percent) for 238 yards and two touchdowns.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C James Stone, RG Chris Chester, RT Ryan Schraeder. Backups – G Mike Person, T Bryce Harris, T Tyler Polumbus, C Gino Gradkowski. Others: T Lamar Holmes (backup, PUP).

The Falcons, who opened last season with Matthews at left tackle, Justin Blalock at left guard, Hawley at center, Asamoah at right guard and Holmes at right tackle, have replaced four of the starters and have five new veterans on the unit from other teams as the Falcons have shifted to an outside zone blocking system. Levitre was picked up in a trade with Tennessee at the end of training camp. The Falcons spent the later part of the offseason trying to fortify the offensive line to find better schemes fits as the plan to run the ball better in the outside zone blocking scheme. They snapped up Polumbus, Chester and Harris after they were cut by their former teams. There was some alarm after the unit turned in a porous showing in the third exhibition game against the Miami Dolphins. Stone beat out Joe Hawley, the incumbent who was coming back from double-ligament knee surgery. Hawley was cut Monday when the Faclosn claimed Gradkowski on waivers from Denver. The line showed some promise in the run game against Baltimore in the regular season finale. How quickly Chris Chester can blend the unit together could determine how successful the offensive will be in 2015.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DRE Vic Beasley Jr., DT Ra’Shede Hageman, NT Paul Soliai, DLE Tyson Jackson. Backups — DE Malliciah Goodman, DE/DT Adrian Clayborn, DT Jonathan Babineaux, DT Grady Jarrett.

The Falcons had veterans Jackson and Soliai, former 3-4 fits at end and nose tackle, slim down over the offseason in order to be quicker off the ball. They want to create a penetrating front four. Beasley was taken with the sixth overall pick to help breathe some life into their anemic pass rush. General manager Thomas Dimitroff has compared his quickness off the line of scrimmage to former Falcons defensive end John Abraham. The Falcons also added Clayborn, a former defensive end who will play tackle in the nickel package. He recorded two sacks in the exhibition season and the 8.0 team sacks recorded were promising after the Falcons had just 22 sacks last season. The key could be the play of second-year man Ra’Shede Hageman.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Kroy Biermann, MLB Paul Worrilow, WLB Justin Durant. Backups – WLB Allen Bradford, O’Brien Schofield, SLB Joplo Bartu, MLB Nate Stupar, SLB Brooks Reed.

With Reed out to start the season, Biermann, a converted defensive end, is slated to start at strong-side linebacker. He played some outside linebacker in the 3-4 last season, but struggled. Reed and Durant were added in free agency to help improve he unit. Durant’s speed is an asset if he can stay healthy. Worrilow, the team’s leading tackler the past two seasons, retained his position and is the defensive signal caller. Bartu, who started on the strong side last season, is available if Biermann can’t deliver. Stupar and Bradford should shine on special teams.

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

Allen is a converted cornerback and has looked fine in his switch to free safety. His speed, range and tackling ability led the new staff to make the move. Defensive backs coaches Marquand Manuel and defensive passing game coordinator Raheem Morris have helped to develop him. Moore battled through a calf injury, but his ready for the opener. Ishamael and Therizie, an undrafted rookie, will help on specials teams. Godfrey, a former starter in the league, is insurance if Moore, who has been injury prone, falls apart physically.

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

Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, who was interviewed for the head coaching vacancy before Dan Quinn was hired, will build his units around the solid kicking and punting of Bosher and Bryant. Bosher handles the punting and kickoffs. He averaged 4.8 seconds on his open-field punts last season, which was tops in the league, according to profootballfocus.com. Bryant still has plus-50 range at age 37. Harris is back for long-snapping duties while the incomparable Hester returns to handle return duties. Hester has been bothered by toe and ankle injuries and has former special teams Pro Bowler Weems backing him up.

PRACTICE SQUAD: LB Derek Akunne, T Pierce Burton, RB Jahwan Edwards, TE Marcel Jensen, CB Akeem King, OLB Stansly Maponga, NT Joey Mbu, QB Matt Simms, LB Tyler Starr.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 4th

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

Strength of schedule:

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

–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 CONCERN: 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.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Jameis Winston. Backups — Mike Glennon, Ryan Griffin.

Winston had an up-and-down preseason, completing less than 50 percent of his passes with no touchdowns (he ran for two scores) and two interceptions. He’s a gunslinger who is going to make mistakes but has the savvy and confidence to bounce back from poor throws and learns quickly. Glennon is a capable backup, but with a 5-13 record, the Bucs wanted some options and claimed Griffin off waivers from the Saints.

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

Injuries have been the problem for Martin the past two seasons. But he has slimmed down and is running like the player who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2012, rushing for 1,454 yards. Sims, who missed half his rookie season with an ankle injury, will get the first shot to spell Martin. But the Bucs won’t hesitate to use Rainey and James if he falters.

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

Seferian-Jenkins has the tool box to be an effective weapon for Winston. The two are close off the field as well. But injuries torpedoed his rookie season and he seems rededicated to his training this season. Myers has caught a lot of passes in this league and the oft-injured Stocker is the best in-line blocker of the bunch.

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

Evans is nursing a hamstring injury and missed the final two preseason games. He’s a special talent that finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. Jackson has churned out 1,000-yard seasons all three years he’s been with the Bucs and shows no signs of slowing down at 32. Shepard is primarily a special teams demon but caught the Bucs eye with big plays in the preseason. Humphries is strictly a slot receiver who returns punts.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Donovan Smith, LG Logan Mankins, C Evan Smith, RG Ali Marpet, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups — T Kevin Pamphile, G Matthew Masifilo, C Eric Cush, C Jeremiah Warren. Others: T Demar Dotson (IR/designated for return).

The Bucs are rolling the dice going with rookies at left tackle in Smith and right guard in Marpet, a Division III player from Hobart College. Both are talented but looked overwhelmed in the third preseason game against the Browns. Cherilus will have to start for at least eight weeks until Dotson gets back from an MCL sprain. Mankins doesn’t have much left in the tank but is a great mentor for the kids. Smith needs to play better than he did a year ago.

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. Others: DT Akeem Spence (backup, suspended 1 game).

The Bucs haven’t had a player record at least 10 sacks in a season since Simeon Rice in 2005. Gerald McCoy is the gold standard for defensive tackles but needs help. The Bucs are stacked inside with the addition of Melton and McDaniel. But they’re banking on Johnson (6.0 sacks for the Lions in 2014) and Smith (6.5 in eight starts for the Bucs) getting it done.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Lavonte David, MLB Kwon Alexander, SLB Danny Lansanah. Backups — Bruce Carter, Jeremiah George, James-Michael Johnson.

The biggest addition to the defense is Alexander, the fourth-round pick from LSU. He gives the Bucs another player who can fly to the football like David. Lansanah had three picks last season, two for TDs. The Bucs claimed George and Johnson off waivers following the final cuts. Maybe one of the strongest units on the team.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Alterraun Verner, RCB Johnthan Banks, SS Major Wright, FS Bradley McDougald. Backups — S Chris Conte, S Keith Tandy, S D.J. Swearinger, CB Mike Jenkins, CB Sterling Moore, CB Tim Jennings.

The Bucs hope to get more than two interceptions from Verner this year. Banks is long and led the team with four picks last season. Jennings gives the Bucs another veteran who knows the system. The Bucs liked the way McDougald played once he became a starter and watch for Swearinger to emerge as a starter after the Bucs claimed him from the Texans.

SPECIALISTS: K Kyle Brindza, P Jacob Schum, LS Andrew DaPaola, PR Adam Humphries, KOR Bobby Rainey.

The Bucs are going with rookies at kicker and punter this season. Both have exceptional leg strength. Brindza was acquired in a trade with the Lions for TE Tim Wright and kicked field goals of 55 and 57 yards in his only preseason game with the Bucs. This is the third stint for Schum. The Bucs will go with Humphries, a rookie from Clemson, as the primary punt returner and Rainey will hand the kickoff return duties. Both did well in the preseason.

PRACTICE SQUAD: CB Jude Adjei-Barimah, TE Cameron Brate, CB Imoan Claiborne, WR/KR Kaelin Clay, WR Donteea Dye, TE Reid Fragel, WR Rannell Hall, DE Howard Jones, LB Josh Keyes.

–Correspondents covering each team for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this report.


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