All four NFC South teams will open training camp next week, on either the 24th or 25th of the month. In Tampa and Spartanburg, Flowery Branch and Metairie, players will finally put on the pads and get serious about preparing for the 2013 season opener. An important part of that process is determining the starting lineups, and each camp will feature a couple positions that are up for grabs. In Tampa, the most heated competition will likely be at defensive tackle, strongside linebacker, right cornerback and tight end. Where will the key battles be in the other three NFC South camps? With the first practices almost upon us, it's time to check in on the headlines from around the division once again, with an emphasis on starting lineups.
In Atlanta, one of the cornerback spots is open after the team released veteran Dunta Robinson just before the start of free agency. The Falcons chose to address that issue head-on, using both their first and second-round picks on corners – Washington's Desmond Trufant and Southeastern Louisiana's Robert Alford. Those two are ostensibly battling for the job, but it would be something of a surprise if first-rounder Trufant didn't land it in the end, with Alford biding his time until Asante Samuel's run at the other spot ends. It's a little less certain at right tackle where the release of Tyson Clabo, the starter at that spot for the last six years, has led to a serious competition between second-year man Lamar Holmes and fourth-year veteran Mike Johnson. Both are former third-round picks, and the Falcons blog Grits Blitz considers Holmes the better pass-blocker and Johnson the superior run-blocker. On the edge of the O-line, the decision by Tony Gonzalez to forestall retirement by one more year kept tight end from being a major issue. It also may have changed the Falcons' approach on draft weekend; instead of spending a high pick on one of the blue-chip TE prospects, the team waited until the fourth round to grab Stanford's Levin Toilolo. Toilolo steps into a battle for what is a semi-starting job – the second man to pair with Gonzalez in two-TE sets. Toilolo is 6-8 and, according to the Falcons' web site, a potential red zone threat, but he'll get serious competition from the likes of veterans Chase Coffman and Tommy Gallarda. The winner might also end up as the eventual replacement for Gonzalez when the sure-fire Hall-of-Famer finally hangs up the cleats. The Falcons' own blog also considers the punt and kickoff return jobs up for grabs, with candidates including the rookie Alford, former Mr. Irrelevant Tim Toone and speedy running back Jacquizz Rodgers. D. Orlando Ledbetter recently projected the Falcons' camp depth chart and had Rodgers as the kickoff return man and wide receiver Harry Douglas handling punts. Ledbetter also recently looked at five "under-the-radar" position battles in the Falcons' upcoming camp, from fourth receiver to third quarterback, the latter of which includes such obscure candidates (to non-Falcons fans) as Sean Renfree and Seth Doege. Ledbetter says the "untested" Dominique Davis is the favorite to be Matt Ryan's primary backup. One final battle that is definitely not under the radar, or lacking in combatants, is left defensive end. Osi Umenyiora has replaced John Abraham on the right side, but his bookend could be experienced vet Kroy Biermann or, according to the Falcoholic blog on SBNation, anyone from among a deep group that includes Malliciah Goodman, Stansly Maponga, Jonathan Massaquoi and versatile DT Jonathan Babineaux.
The Charlotte Observer website does us the favor of listing five prominent position battles to watch in Carolina when the Panthers go to camp, including strong safety and right guard. Though a tough cap situation didn't allow them to hunt the biggest names this offseason, the Panthers did pick up former Raider Mike Mitchell in free agency and he would seem like a front-runner at strong safety, but second-year man D.J. Campbell got some starting experience at the end of last season. ESPN.com NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas says that the team has also been impressed with rookie Robert Lester, an undrafted free agent who started 40 games Alabama. And while that Charlotte Observer piece considers right guard a question mark, the Panthers' official website says Geoff Hangartner "enters 2013 as starter at right guard." Hangartner's top competition was thought to be fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila, but the former Valdosta State player missed most of the offseason with a knee injury. The seemingly annual search for productive receivers will continue in the Panthers' camp this year. The team didn't draft any pass-catchers in April, as some analysts predicted they would, focusing on the defensive tackle position instead. However, they were able to pick up former Giant Domenik Hixon and former 49er Ted Ginn. Neither Hixon nor Ginn has ever caught more than 43 passes in an NFL season, but those numbers might be sufficient as a third receiver if Brandon LaFell holds onto the starting job opposite star Steve Smith. LaFell started 13 games last season and contributed 44 catches for 677 yards and four touchdowns, numbers that failed to impress, but ESPN.com indicated after the Panthers' June camp that he is "locked in" as a starter. That same article takes a long look at Ginn as the potential third receiver, with various Panthers chiming in to say the former first-round pick in Miami was having a strong offseason. The answers may be more difficult to find at cornerback, where there is a Chris Gamble-sized hole on one side and former Clifton Smith-headhunter Captain Munnerlyn likely to start on the other. Second-year player Josh Norman got a "trial by fire" as a starter opposite Gamble last year, as the SBNation blog Catscratchreader puts it, and is one of the clear front-runners for a starting job in 2013. He'll get competition from incoming veterans D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence, though neither has a particularly strong recent resume. The Catscratchreader post breaks down all the candidates at the cornerback position for Carolina but doesn't give any one of them a better than 35% chance to start.
In New Orleans, the Saints must anoint a new left tackle after losing Jermon Bushrod to the Bears in free agency. The candidates appear to be Charles Brown, who has started eight game for the Saints (mostly at right tackle) over the last two seasons; Jason Smith, a newcomer to New Orleans who has not yet lived up to being the second overall pick in 2009; and Terron Armstead, a promising small-school prospect taken in the third round this spring. As this position appears to be the Saints' biggest question mark, the battle has drawn a lot of attention this spring and summer, which the team fueled by giving the candidates a rotating shot with the first-team line. As reported by the Nola.com blog, Head Coach Sean Payton said it wouldn't really be possible to tell who was taking the lead in the battle until the pads went on in training camp. Peyton and the Saints seem confident rather than worried about the position, believing a player would step up in the same way a relatively unknown Bushrod did in 2009. In addition to the uncertainty on Drew Brees' blind side, the Saints also have an issue to figure out behind Brees on the depth chart. With Chase Daniel, the backup of the last three years, off to the Chiefs, the Saints will presumably find a new one from among three candidates: veterans Luke McCown and Seneca Wallace and Tulane rookie Ryan Griffin. On defense, the Saints are converting to a 3-4 base under new coordinator Rob Ryan, which means that some existing pieces may be asked to fit into new spots in the puzzle. Veteran defensive end Will Smith, for instance, has already moved to outside linebacker during the Saints' offseason work and second-year player Akiem Hicks, drafted as a defensive tackle, may find his true calling as a 3-4 end. Actually, Hicks thinks he will end up playing several different spots on the line, but the new front could be his ticket to a starting job after he served strictly as a reserve in his rookie season. CBSSports' Pete Prisco labels Hicks as the "unheard-of guy to watch" in Saints camp this year. The competition at outside linebacker lost one of its key components earlier in the offseason when former Cowboy Victor Butler, a prized free agent acquisition, suffered a season-ending knee injury. As Prisco also points out, the Saints will now be looking to Junior Galette and Martez Wilson to emerge as their outside pass-rushers in that 4-3 scheme.