The four NFC South teams will soon face their first difficult roster decisions, as every club in the league must cut down to 75 players by 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday. A final week of preseason play will follow, and then each team will further trim its roster to 53 for the regular season. Obviously, the next two games will be very important to a host of young players throughout the division, but the work they have already put in during training camp and the first half of the preseason has already begun the work of sorting out NFC South depth charts. As the Bucs' three South foes prepare for the upcoming cuts, it's time to check in on the headlines from around the division once again.
In Atlanta, the Falcons have a potential feel-good story in Brian Banks, but he is viewed as a "long shot" to make it through the upcoming round of cuts. Banks, who hasn't played organized football in 11 years due mostly to jail time from a rape conviction for which he was later exonerated, has played only sparingly in the first two preseason games and admits that he's shaking off the rust. Still, he could get extensive time in the next two games, especially if he makes it past the first cuts to the preseason finale, and that could boost his chances, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Another Falcon who has taken an unconventional path to this year's training camp is rookie T Ryan Schraeder, whose chances of making the roster increased when the likely starter at right tackle, Mike Johnson, was lost for the season with a broken fibula and dislocated ankle suffered on the practice field in early August. Schraeder is an undrafted free agent out of Valdosta State who stood just 5-7 when he entered his senior season at high school before a nine-inch growth spurt. He's now battling Lamar Holmes, who is nearly as untested, for the starting job on the right edge of the line. The AJC's D. Orlando Ledbetter says it is difficult for the coaches to see what they need in the Holmes-Schraeder battle because of the practice-field limits on contact. The Falcons could see several undrafted rookies make the team if LB Paul Worrilow keeps up his preseason performance. He had 11 tackles in Atlanta's loss to Cincinnati, his NFL debut, and he is versatile enough to play all three linebacker positions, which should help his cause when the time for cuts arrives. First-ballot Hall-of-Fame TE Tony Gonzalez, who was talked out of retirement this past winter, obviously has no worries about making it through those upcoming cuts. However, he was away from the team for most of training camp – part of the deal that got him to return for 2013 – and only returned earlier this week (he kept up to date with the team's work in the playbook through constant updates on his iPad). Gonzalez may play in the Falcons' third preseason game at Tennessee on Saturday night, which would at least help the team shake out how the tight end corps will shape up behind him. Rookie Levine Toilolo, a fourth-round draft pick out of Stanford, says he feels no added pressure as the possible incumbent to Gonzalez after this season.
In Carolina, the Panthers finally unveiled Ted Ginn, the former Dolphin and 49er receiver they signed during the offseason who had yet to make his 2013 debut before Thursday night's game against Baltimore. Ginn's return could make an immediate difference to a handful of young players on the Carolina roster who have been getting opportunities to return punts and kicks while Ginn was out, including rookie RB Kenjon Barner, a sixth-round pick out of Oregon. The Panthers signed Ginn believing he could potentially make a difference on offense but almost certainly help in the return game. Thursday night's results backed that up – Ginn returned the first punt he fielded as a Panther 74 yards for a touchdown but caught only one pass for nine yards on the night. Barner did still return one kickoff for 24 yards in that game, and his efforts to gain a role in the offensive backfield could be helped by RB Jonathan Stewart's ongoing injury struggles. Stewart is trying to return from surgery on both ankles and, while he could be back for the start of the regular season, the Panthers haven't ruled out putting him on the PUP list, according to the Charlotte News & Observer. Second-year RB Tauren Poole, an undrafted free agent from Tennessee in 2012 who spent his rookie year on injured reserve, could make the Panthers' decision at running back more difficult; Poole leads the team in the preseason with 29 carries for 82 yards, including 15 totes on Thursday night. WR Domenik Hixon did not play on Thursday, though he recently began practicing; the Panthers added the former Giant during the free agency period but may have some difficult decisions to make at receiver. WR David Gettis could squeeze out one of his competitors at that spot thanks to a strong performance this preseason that includes 11 catches for 164 yards. Gettis needed nearly 15 months to return from a 2011 knee injury and a 2012 hamstring ailment but he's reportedly regained the speed that made him a collegiate track star at Baylor. Like Gettis, third-year Mario Addison didn't join Carolina's 2012 roster until late in the season, but in his case it was after spending the previous two years bouncing around among three different teams. The Panthers signed Addison off Washington's practice squad last December and he saw action in four games, with one sack and one start. Now Addison is putting together a strong preseason for the Panthers and could emerge as the primary backup to sack-happy ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy.
The roster cuts of note have already started in New Orleans, almost a week before the mandated reduction to 75 players, as the Saints have released fifth-year tackle Jason Smith, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft. After three disappointing seasons in St. Louis and one as a reserve for the Jets, Smith signed with the Saints this year to compete for the starting left tackle job vacated by Jermon Bushrod, who is now a Chicago Bear. With Charles Brown looking like the probable starter for the Saints and third-round developmental project Terron Armstead surpassing Smith on the depth chart very early in training camp, the Saints got their roster down to 80 by cutting Smith. At the tight end position, the Saints have four players trying to back up star Jimmy Graham, who is healthy and predicting big things in 2013, after the somewhat surprising release of Daniel Thomas last February. The only recognizable name to most fans among those four tight ends is Benjamin Watson, who has played nine seasons between New England and Cleveland. Graham says that Watson has already had a big impact on him and the Saints, even before the final roster takes shape. On defense, third-year safety Rafael Bush is looking like a good bet to make the roster despite the Saints excellent trio of Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper and Kenny Vaccaro at that position, thanks in part to Bush's prowess on special teams. However, Bush is taking nothing for granted, as told by Baton Rouge's The Advocate. Mike Triplett had Bush making the team (along with a fifth safety, Isa Abdul-Quddus) in his column on Thursday predicting the Saints' 53-man roster. Triplett has former Buccaneer Preston Parker as one of the five receivers making the team but thinks 2012 preseason star RB Travaris Cadet is on thin ice after fumbling twice in a recent preseason game. Undrafted rookie CB Rod Sweeting has been impressive this summer but may have trouble keeping a spot if Jonathan Vilma is healthy enough to start the regular season and the team keeps a whopping 11 linebackers.