NFC South Player Analysis: Every Team, Every Unit, Every Player

Know your Players: A unit-by-unit breakdown on every team in the NFC South by The Sports Xchange

ATLANTA FALCONS

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Matt Ryan. Backup -- Matt Schaub.

Ryan, entering his 11th season, remains one of the elite players at his position. But his numbers last year (4,095 yards, 20 touchdowns) were a big drop from his 2016 MVP season (4,944 yards, 38 TDs) and his interceptions almost doubled, from seven to 12. He remains sturdy, dependable and unflappable.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Devonta Freeman, FB Ricky Ortiz. Backups -- Tevin Coleman, Ito Smith.

Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowl pick, missed two games in 2017 and failed to rush for 1,000 yards (865) after doing it in consecutive seasons. Freeman is also a dangerous receiver, although that category was also down in 2017. Coleman ran for a career-high 628 yards last season and improved as a receiver. Keep an eye on how the team uses fourth-round draft choice Ito Smith, who struggled at times during camp. Ortiz fought off a handful of contenders to earn the starting fullback spot by his tenacity in defending Ryan.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Austin Hooper. Backups -- Logan Paulsen, Eric Saubert.

Hooper had a great camp and proved he can be Ryan's dependable alternative target. He had 49 receptions in 2017, more than doubling his rookie total of 19. Saubert has excellent speed for a big guy and took big strides in camp, and Paulsen remains a solid blocker.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu. Backups -- Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall.

Jones made news when camp opened because he decided to hold out for more money. The two sides reconfigured the deal and Jones showed up on time. He just didn't play. The team contends he doesn't need preseason snaps because he practices with great intensity. The five-time Pro Bowl pick caught 88 passes for 1,444 yards in 2017, but Jones scored only three touchdowns. Sanu is a solid, dependable receiver who caught a career-best 67 passes in 2017. Ridley gives the offense an additional burner who could benefit from the double-coverage that Jones will receive.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Ryan Schraeder. Backups -- T Ty Sambrailo, G Ben Garland, G Wes Schweitzer, G Matt Gono.

The only competition of the preseason was at right guard, where Fusco won the battle against incumbent Schweitzer. Fusco signed a three-year deal with Atlanta, but Schweitzer (a sixth-round pick in 2016) put up quite a fight. The result: more depth in an area that always needs it. Mack remains the most important part of the unit and has stabilized the line since he signed as a free agent in 2016.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Vic Beasley Jr., DT Terrell McClain, DT Grady Jarrett, DE Takk McKinley. Backups -- DE Derrick Shelby, DE Brooks Reid, DT Deadrin Senat, DT Jack Crawford, DT Justin Zimmer.

This group needs to do a better job getting after the quarterback and slowing the run. They had only 39 sacks in 2017 (No. 14 in the league) and gave up 1,665 rushing yards (24th most). Adrian Clayborn (now with the Patriots) led the team with 9.5 sacks, leaving McKinley (six sacks) as the top sacker returning from 2017. The team is hoping for a return to form by Beasley, who dropped from 15.5 sacks in 2016 to five last season. Jarrett is extremely quick for a big man and looks to build on his disruptive 2017 season (four sacks, 15 tackles for loss). Jarrett is the team's one big unsigned player who is waiting to get paid.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Duke Riley, MLB Deion Jones, OLB De'Vondre Campbell. Backups - Foyesade Oluokun, Kemal Ishmael.

Jones was limited because of a muscle strain during camp and the team definitely missed his presence. Jones plays with great effort all the time, covers a lot of ground and is a good tackler. Campbell continues to be more than adequate, and Riley took positive steps in camp after an unsteady rookie season. Oluokun, a sixth-round pick out of Yale, has been a pleasant surprise with his speed and aggressive play.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Robert Alford, CB Desmond Trufant, SS Ricardo Allen, FS Keanu Neal (Injured in opener). Backups -- CB Isaiah Oliver, CB Brian Poole, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB Justin Bethel, S Damontae Kazee, S Jordan Richards, CB Deante Burton.

This may be the strength of the defense, with veterans at all positions. Neal tore ACL in season opener against Philadelphia and is out of the season. He was second in tackles last year the leader of an aggressive group of defenders. Allen signed an extension for big money, and Trufant is the team's lock-down corner. Alford has improved incrementally, although he is prone to draw penalties as he is normally the guy who gets tested. Kazee was the surprise of the preseason; the second-year player studied hard with Allen and showed the ability make plays.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Bryant, P Matt Bosher, KR/PR Justin Hardy, LS Jeff Overbaugh, LS Josh Harris.

Bryant, 43, missed some time in camp with an undisclosed injury, but was back for the third preseason game and showed no ill effects. He made 34 of 39 field goals in 2017 and was 8 of 9 on kicks of 50 yards or more. Bryant is beginning his 10th season with Atlanta. Bosher remains very consistent; he averaged 44.9 yards in 2017, right at his career average of 45.0.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Cam Newton. Backup - Taylor Heinicke.

Newton has appeared to be in good form, even healthy enough for a few reckless maneuvers during the preseason. That ought to indicate he is feeling good and ready to put his mark on the season. How Newton meshes with a largely new receiving corps will be worth watching early in the season. The bigger curiosity during the preseason was about the backup because veteran Derek Anderson is no longer on hand. Heinicke won the No. 2 spot in what was considered a close competition with Garrett Gilbert, who was last year's third-stringer.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Christian McCaffrey, C.J. Anderson. Backups - Alex Armah, Cameron Artis-Payne.

Anderson is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season with the Denver Broncos, so despite releasing the franchise's all-time leading rusher in Jonathan Stewart no decline is expected. In fact, the group needs to pick up the pace, particularly in terms of the ground attack. McCaffrey offers so much more than a traditional tailback and he is more equipped to be a factor catching the ball. Artis-Payne is the type of backup who has proven to be reliable. Armah has spent time in some formations at tight end, so that could be another avenue to get onto the field.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Greg Olsen. Backups - Chris Manhertz, Ian Thomas.

Olsen might be past his prime, but he is still counted on for major production. He is coming off a season in which he was out for an extended period with a foot injury, though he is one of Newton's favorite targets when the offense is clicking. The Panthers tend to make good use of their tight ends regardless of who is manning that position. Manhertz has time with the team, so that's a plus. Thomas has shown strides as the team's fourth-round draft pick in the spring, but he is still considered a project.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Devin Funchess, Torrey Smith. Backups - DJ Moore, Damiere Byrd, Jarius Wright, Curtis Samuel.

Funchess became the No. 1 receiver last season after the trade of Kelvin Benjamin, but he might have more help this season. The addition of Smith in a trade is considered one of the significant offseason moves after he arrived from the Philadelphia Eagles. The Panthers are looking for explosive plays from this group, something often lacking last year. Moore is a rookie with lots of potential and the knack for picking up things quickly, so he could rise into a major role. Samuel is a second-year player with many tools, but he lacks experience and consistency -- some of that stemming from injuries.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Taylor Moton, LG Greg Van Roten, C Ryan Kalil, RG Trai Turner, RT Daryl Williams. Backups - LG Amini Silatolu, LG Brendan Mahon, C Tyler Larsen, RT Corey Robinson, LT Matt Kalil (IR/could return later in season).

This group was hit hard by preseason injuries so the Panthers are still trying to fit the pieces together. Moton has been praised for his versatility and he will get a chance to display that in his second season after Matt Kalil was put on injured reserve and will miss at least the first half of the season. It's quite possible that Williams won't be ready for the opener as he suffered an MCL and patella injury in late July, so that would automatically complicate things. Ryan Kalil dealt with a neck injury that lingered last year. It appears Silatolu, who would have been a starter at left guard, won't be available at the start of the season so this could put further kinks in the production of this unit. If Ryan Kalil, who is considered one of the team leaders, returns to form, then there's reason to be encouraged that this group can excel.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DE Mario Addison, DT Kawann Short, DT Dontari Poe, DE Wes Horton. Backups - DE Julius Peppers, DT Vernon Butler, DT Kyle Love, DE Bryan Cox Jr., DE Efe Obada, DE Marquis Haynes.

With Addison helping lead the charge and Peppers back for another season as one of the all-time best at pressuring quarterbacks, the Panthers might be able to count this unit as one of the team's strengths. Poe has been a good addition from Atlanta and has drawn preseason praise, so the front looks solid. Peppers doesn't practice much, because the goal is to make sure he's fresh for games. The Panthers continue to wait for Butler, a 2016 first-round draft choice, to emerge as an impact player. His development could determine how good this unit can become.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Shaq Thompson, MLB Luke Kuechly, OLB David Mayo. Backups - Jermaine Carter, Ben Jacobs, Andre Smith, Jared Norris, LB Thomas Davis (SUS).

There is some shuffling here, but the key is that Kuechly is in the middle. He still rates as one of the NFL's best defenders. Kuechly had offseason labrum surgery on his left shoulder, but he hasn't been slowed during the preseason. Thompson moves to the strong side, where Davis would be if not for a four-game NFL suspension to begin the season. This means Mayo moves into a starting role at least temporarily. He has been the primary backup at linebacker for the past season, filling Kuechly's spot at times. With Mayo in the mix of starters, this does leave questions regarding the second-stringers. Carter and Smith are rookies who might be called upon.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB James Bradberry, FS Mike Adams, SS Da'Norris Searcy, CB Donte Jackson. Backups - S Colin Jones, CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Corn Elder, S Rashaan Gaulden, CB Lorenzo Doss.

Bradberry enters his third season after considerable improvement shown during his second season. Depth is a concern on the corners, particularly with the loss of Ross Cockrell, who went out with a training camp injury after he was acquired to provide stability and to compete for a starting role. Adams is a veteran voice in the secondary, so it's not a unit without an element of experience. Gaulden is a rookie who at times looks capable of making significant contributions, but his consistency could be a concern. Munnerlyn wasn't always happy with a decreasing role last season so his attitude could be important.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Graham Gano, P Michael Palardy, LS J.J. Jansen, KR/Damiere Byrd.

Gano is coming off a special season and Palardy showed that it was a good choice to keep him in the mix when other options were available. If these players can repeat their production from last season, that would benefit the Panthers considerably. Byrd is capable of making game-changing plays and he will take this role seriously, though it's possible that McCaffrey might get some shots as well as a returner.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Drew Brees. Backups - Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill.

At age 39, Brees shows no signs of becoming less productive, but the Saints made their most significant move at quarterback since signing Brees in 2006 when they traded for Bridgewater at the end of the preseason. Bridgewater represents an upgrade over Tom Savage, who was released in the wake of the trade, and assuming New Orleans re-signs him next offseason he is Brees' heir apparent. Hill is a unique special-teams contributor who showed growth as a quarterback in the preseason, but is still a developmental player under center.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Mark Ingram II (SUS), FB Zach Line. Backups - Alvin Kamara, Mike Gillislee.

Ingram's absence for the first four games makes Kamara even more important. Kamara's ability to run and catch, like Ingram's, was a major factor in the Saints' success last season. Gillislee was brought in after the cutdown to 53 players as a veteran who can help at least during Ingram's absence. Line's role is mostly limited to blocking.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Benjamin Watson. Backups - Josh Hill, Dan Arnold.

Watson earned the starting position after being brought back as a free agent, but at age 37 and two years removed from a torn Achilles he's not the downfield threat he was when he had a career year in New Orleans in 2015. Still he's effective and a team leader. Hill has been a serviceable role player for the last five years. Arnold was converted from wide receiver at the start of training camp and could provide matchup problems for defenders.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr. Backups - Tre'Quan Smith, Cameron Meredith, Austin Carr, Tommylee Lewis.

Thomas is already a Pro Bowl-caliber player as he enters his third season and Ginn had a solid first season in New Orleans last year, but he's 33-years-old. The Saints signed Meredith as a veteran free agent to upgrade the depth, but the preseason indicated that Smith might wind up having a bigger impact. Either way, the depth should be substantially better than it was last season. Lewis, who provides quickness and return ability, and Carr both made the roster thanks to strong finishes in the preseason.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Terron Armstead, LG Andrus Peat, C Max Unger, RG Larry Warford, RT Ryan Ramczyk. Backups - G/T Jermon Bushrod, G/C Josh LeRibeus, G/C Cameron Tom, G/C Will Clapp, T Michael Ola.

This starting unit has evolved into one of the strengths of the team, though it has been affected by injuries in the past. Armstead, Unger and Warford are all Pro Bowl-caliber, Peat has settled in as a solid guard after playing multiple positions and Ramczyk was a standout after being thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie last season. The depth is average at best with Bushrod, who contemplated retirement after being injured with the Dolphins last season, and LeRibeus as the only reserves with game experience. Tom and Clapp showed enough promise to survive the cutdown.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Cameron Jordan, LDT Sheldon Rankins, RDT Tyeler Davison, RDE Alex Okafor. Backups - DE Marcus Davenport, DE Trey Hendrickson, DT David Onyemata, DT Taylor Stallworth, DE Mitchell Loewen.

Jordan's rare combination of speed and strength has made him one of the better ends in the NFL. In his seventh season last season he had a career-high 13 sacks. Okafor was having a very good year last season before tearing his Achilles in November. He has made an encouraging comeback so far, but the Saints still traded up in the first round of the draft to select Davenport, who missed three weeks of training camp because of a muscle pull, but he's healthy entering the season. Hendrickson had a solid rookie year last year and showed significant improvement in the preseason. The tackles are solid with Davison, Rankins and Onyemata, who emerged as a co-starter with Rankins during the preseason. After that the depth inside is suspect.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Demario Davis, MLB Manti Te'o, SLB A.J. Klein. Backups - WLB Alex Anzalone, SLB Craig Robertson.

Davis was signed as a free agent after leading the Jets in tackles a year ago and looks to be the leader of a capable, but unexceptional group. Te'o helped stabilize the unit last season in the wake of injuries to Klein and Anzalone, both of who seem fully recovered. Klein is a leader on the team and Anzalone's athleticism enables him to excel in pass coverage. Robertson is versatile as a backup and is one of the better special-teams players New Orleans has.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - RCB Marshon Lattimore, FS Kurt Coleman, SS Marcus Williams, LCB Ken Crawley. Backups - Nickel CB Patrick Robinson, RCB P.J. Williams, LCB Arthur Maulet, FS Vonn Bell, SS Chris Banjo, CB Justin Hardee, FS J.T. Gray.

Lattimore and Marcus Williams had outstanding rookie seasons last year and Crawley showed significant growth from his rookie season in 2017. Coleman was brought in as a veteran free agent to add some experience to the group. Bell started last season and will play a lot behind Coleman. Robinson was signed as a veteran free agent to play the nickel-back position. P.J. Williams enters his fourth season as an average backup. Maulet, Banjo and Hardee made the team primarily because of their abilities on special teams as did Gray, an undrafted free agent who was one of the biggest long-shots to make the team.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Wil Lutz, P Thomas Morstead, LS Zach Wood.

Lutz showed significant improvement from his rookie season to his second season last year, making 31-of-36 kicks, Morstead had one of the better seasons in his 10-year career and Wood came in last season to stabilize a position that was in a state of flux throughout last offseason. Kamara could still be in the mix on kickoff returns, but the Saints likely will lean on Scott at least until Ingram returns. Scott looked good on kickoff returns in the preseason and is still learning as a punt returner, which he was not in college. Lewis, who shared the punt return duties with Ted Ginn Jr. last season, seems likely to be the primary punt returner to start this season and share the kickoff duties with Scott.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starters - Jameis Winston (SUS), Ryan Fitzpatrick. Backups - Ryan Griffin.

Winston is suspended for the first three games of the season for violating the NFL's player conduct policy. An eight-month investigation determined that he groped a female Uber driver in Arizona in March 2016. That leaves 35-year-old veteran Fitzpatrick to start against the Saints, Eagles and Steelers. Fitzpatrick has 119 career starts, so this is nothing new. He also has raved about the bounty of skill players at his disposal. Fitzpatrick went 2-1 a year ago as a starter, beating the Jets and Dolphins. His arm strength is not the same as Winston's and will need a strong running game to set up some play action. Griffin, 28, is entering his fifth NFL season and has never taken a regular-season snap. But he had four touchdown passes in the preseason and will be the Bucs' No. 2 until Winston returns.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Peyton Barber. Backups - Ronald Jones II, Jacquizz Rodgers, Shaun Wilson.

Barber won the job after an impressive preseason in which he averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. Jones, a second-round pick from USC, struggled in training camp and preseason, averaging 0.8 yards per carry in the preseason. The Bucs didn't give him many good run looks and his longest attempt was 5 yards. They expect Jones to be a home-run hitter but have to do a better job of getting him in space. He only caught 32 passes at USC but has improved in that area. Rodgers will be the primary third-down back, but Wilson, an undrafted free agent from Duke, will handle the kickoff return duties.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters - O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate. Backups - Antony Auclair, Alan Cross.

Howard and Brate each had six touchdown receptions last season. Look for Howard to take a big step forward in his second season from the 26 passes he caught as a rookie, easily doubling that figure. Howard won't come off the field and is the primary in-line blocker at tight end. Brate still is a favorite red-zone target and makes big catches on third down. Auclair is a good prospect from Canada while Cross doubles as a fullback.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin. Backups - Adam Humphries, Freddie Martino, Justin Watson.

Evans barely eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark last season for the fourth straight year and went from 12 touchdowns in 2016 to only five in 2017. The problem is he is always double-teamed and there are plenty of targets. Jackson simply had one of the worst years of his career after signing with the Bucs, with 50 catches and four yards less per catch than his career 17.7-yard average. He will have to share time with Godwin, who has the ability to become a No. 1 receiver in the league. In the final two games of 2017, playing for an injured Jackson, he had more than 200 yards and two touchdowns. Humphries still is a slot receiver and was second on the club with 61 catches for 631 yards a year ago. Martino makes it as a special teams player and Watson is a promising rookie from Penn.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Donovan Smith, LG Ali Marpet, C Ryan Jensen, RG Caleb Benenoch, RT Demar Dotson. Backups - T Leonard Wester, G/T Michael Liedtke, G Adam Gettis, C Evan Smith, G Alex Cappa.

The Bucs were hit by injuries in training camp to their offensive line and the five starters rarely played together. Smith is recovering from a sprained knee he suffered late in training camp and may not play Sunday at New Orleans. He's made 48 straight starts, so that would be a huge loss. Dotson is coming off two knee surgeries and in his ninth season. The new addition is Jensen, a physical center and Ravens free agent that allowed Marpet to move back to guard, this time on the left side. It's not a deep group. Only Smith has made an NFL start among the backups. Liedtke could get the start against the Saints at left tackle.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Vinny Curry, DT Gerald McCoy, NT Beau Allen, RDE Jason Pierre-Paul. Backups - DE Noah Spence, DT Vita Vea, DT Jerel Worthy, DE William Gholston, DE Carl Nassib, DT Mitch Unrein (IR/could return later in season).

The Bucs spent a lot of resources upgrading the NFL's worst pass rush. McCoy now has help from Pierre-Paul, who was traded by the Giants. The Bucs raided the Eagles for free agents Allen and Curry. They also used a first-round pick on Washington's 347-pound Vea, who suffered a calf injury the first day in pads and has not played in the preseason. It's not a deep group yet, particularly at tackle. But the Bucs expect big things from JPP, who returns to where he played his collegiate football at South Florida.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Lavonte David, MLB Kwon Alexander, SLB Adarius Taylor. Backups - Jack Cichy, Cameron Lynch, Kendell Beckwith.

David and Alexander are among the best tandem of linebackers in the NFL and can run sideline to sideline. David had five fumble recoveries a year ago. But Beckwith will begin the season on the reserve/non-football injury list after sustaining a broken ankle in a car accident last April. He will miss at least five games. It's not a deep group so they can't afford another injury at this position.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Brent Grimes, RCB Vernon Hargreaves, FS Justin Evans, SS Chris Conte. Backups - Jordan Whitehead, CB Ryan Smith, CB Carlton Davis, CB M.J. Stewart, CB DeVante Harris.

Grimes is 35 but when healthy, still among the league's top corners. Hargreaves has only one interception in two seasons, so this is a big year for him. He will start at on the right side, but move to the slot on passing downs. Rookie Carlton Davis moves to right corner in the sub-package. The Bucs are happy with the development of rookies Stewart and Whitehead. Evans shows good range as a centerfielder, but missed too many tackles last season. Conte is probably a little underrated but a fairly average safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Chandler Catanzaro, P Bryan Anger, LS Garrison Sanborn, KR Shaun Wilson, PR Adam Humphries.

Catanzaro missed only one field-goal attempt in the preseason, but also was errant on two extra points. The Bucs are still trying to overcome a kicking curse. Catanzaro has a strong leg that can consistently kick the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs. Anger is pretty solid and the return game could get a boost from Wilson.

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