With the slate wiped clean and a brand-new NFC South race about to begin, the Buccaneers and Falcons are preparing for home openers (against Tennessee and Philadelphia, respectively) while the Saints are headed to Arizona and the Panthers are on their way to Jacksonville. Each team unsurprisingly has a couple injury concerns to deal with as the opening weekend approaches; in Atlanta, it's at linebacker and in New Orleans it's in the secondary. Carolina has a new look at wide receiver with Kelvin Benjamin out for the year, while the Falcons are still sorting out their offensive backfield.
With the season finally upon us, it's time to check in on the headlines from around the Buccaneers' division for the first time.
The Falcons have overhauled their offensive line in recent days, trading for former Titans guard Andy Levitre and then claiming center Gino Gradkowski and tackle Bryce Harris off waivers from Denver and New Orleans, respectively. With Jake Matthews ailing, ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure discusses how the whole line may come together for the opener.
Atlanta has several candidates to start at running back but who emerges as the starter isn't immediately obvious. Andrew Hirsh of the team's official web site discusses that issue and the fact that one candidate, Devonta Freeman, is currently dealing with a hamstring issue. Atlanta ranked 24th in the NFL in rushing yards last season but with former lead back Steven Jackson gone, the team is hoping for better results from Freeman and rookie Tevin Coleman. D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the team may also be interested in former Broncos back Montee Ball.
The Falcon defense ranked last in the NFL in 2015 but should have a vastly different look under new Head Coach Dan Quinn, formerly the defensive coordinator in Seattle. The team's biggest free agency addition during the offseason was that of former Texan Brooks Reed, who was supposed to man one of the outside linebacker spots. However, Reed had surgery on an injured groin and could miss up to six weeks. Ledbetter reports that Kroy Biermann, a defensive end for most of his first seven years in Atlanta, started the last preseason game in Reed's place. This is how the Falcons' depth chart looks now, according to the AJC; Reed is still listed as the starter and Biermann as a reserve DE. Note also that former Buccaneer Adrian Clayborn is listed as a reserve behind starters Tyson Jackson and Vic Beasley, the team's first-round draft pick.
So who's starting at wide receiver now for the Panthers with 2014 rookie sensation Kelvin Benjamin out for the year and Steve Smith now well in the rearview mirror. Senior writer Bryan Strickland of the team's official web site says that it's Corey (a.k.a. Philly) Brown and Ted Ginn, Jr., the latter back for his second stint in Carolina. Ginn apparently had a strong training camp, according to Head Coach Ron Rivera. The Panthers' depth chart has those two at the top, backed up by Kevin Norwood, Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Devin Funchess.
The Panthers worked out former Bucs defensive linemen Da'Quan Bowers, according to ESPN.com's David Newton. Carolina already has two young standouts at defensive tackle in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short but are likely looking for more of a pass rush. After Greg Hardy led the team to a whopping 59 sacks in 2013, that total fell to 40 in 2014 in Hardy's absence; he is now a Dallas Cowboy. Kony Ealy tied for the team lead in the preseason with two sacks and is now the listed starter at right end.
Lotulelei is currently dealing with a foot injury, but the starting cornerback duo of Charles Tillman and Josh Norman are expected back from concussions in time for the season opener. Rivera on Lotulelei's foot and his status for the season opener: "If it's sore, then we're not going to risk it. We've got to be smart. It's a long season. We've got 17 weeks left. So we can't be hasty with guys."
The Saints will have a new look in their stable of pass-catchers, too, led by second-year speedster Brandin Cooks. ESPN.com's Mike Triplett breaks down the 53-man roster and says the Saints are currently going thin at wide receiver. The team is relying on one 12th-year veteran in Benjamin Watson and one young fantasy football sleeper in Josh Hill to replace the traded Jimmy Graham at tight end. Cooks had a great preseason, with seven catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
The depth in the Saints' secondary is being tested early, with #1 CB Keenan Lewis needing up to six weeks to return from a hip injury and third-round rookie P.J. Williams already on injured reserve with a torn hamstring. Veteran Brandon Browner is close to returning from his own injury, but the team will need somebody from the group of Delvin Breaux, Brian Dixon and Damian Swann to step up. Last year's second-round pick, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, did not survive the final roster cuts and is now on Detroit's practice squad.
The Saints do have a lot of cap space tied up in their secondary, a chunk of which belongs to safety Jairus Byrd. A big free agency acquisition in 2014, Byrd missed much of his first year in New Orleans with a knee injury and then sat out this year's preseason on the PUP list. However, he was not placed on the Reserve/PUP list to start the regular season, fueling hope that he'll be back in action soon.