By Kevin Patra, Around the NFL writer
» The NFC champs will roll out an almost identical roster to the one they employed in the Super Bowl. The glaring change is Josh Norman no longer anchoring the secondary. I don’t have any rookies slated to start at the moment, which is a great sign for the Panthers‘ chances of repeating. Getting Kelvin Benjamin back in the lineup in it of itself is a huge boost to Cam Newton.
» Daryl Worley will play the slot corner. Robert McClain was picked on heavily opposite Norman last year, but is likely to keep his starting spot — at least until the rookies have some seasoning. James Bradberry and Zack Sanchez should get a chance to steal playing time after the first month, especially if offenses continue to take advantage of McClain. This all assumes Bene’ Benwikere will be fully healthy after a broken leg ended his 2015 campaign.
|QB: Cam Newton||DE: Charles Johnson|
|RB: Jonathan Stewart||DT: Kawann Short|
|WR1: Kelvin Benjamin||DT: Star Lotulelei|
|WR2: Ted Ginn||DE: Kony Ealy|
|WR3: Devin Funchess||OLB: Thomas Davis|
|TE: Greg Olsen||MLB: Luke Kuechly|
|LT: Michael Oher||OLB: Shaq Thompson|
|LG: Andrew Norwell||CB1: Bene’ Benwikere|
|C: Ryan Kalil||CB2: Robert McClain|
|RG: Trai Turner||FS: Kurt Coleman|
|RT: Mike Remmers||SS: Tre Boston|
» Mike Tolbert is essentially a starter. The bowling ball fullback should spell Stewart between the tackles withFozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne as scat backs. If injures to J-Stew crop up, it could spell trouble.
» There isn’t a better defensive front seven in the NFL. The Panthers boast the best sideline-to-sideline tackling linebacker trio in the NFL in Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson — expect Shaq to play an even bigger role this season. First-round defensive tackle Vernon Butlerseems like a luxury in his first year, giving Carolina a dominant rotation. Paul Soliai could even play a role if injures crop up. SO. MANY. HOG. MOLLIES.
|QB: Matt Ryan||DE: Vic Beasley|
|RB: Devonta Freeman||DT: Ra’Shede Hageman|
|WR1: Julio Jones||DT: Grady Jarrett|
|WR2: Mohamed Sanu||DE: Derrick Shelby|
|WR3: Justin Hardy||OLB: Philip Wheeler|
|TE: Jacob Tamme||MLB: Deion Jones|
|LT: Jake Matthews||OLB: Brooks Reed|
|LG: Andy Levitre||CB1: Desmond Trufant|
|C: Alex Mack||CB2: Robert Alford|
|RG: Chris Chester||S: Keanu Neal|
|RT: Ryan Schraeder||S: Ricardo Allen|
» The lack of a third wideout is a theme in the NFC South. Justin Hardy doesn’t instill confidence after just 21 catches as a rookie. Mohamed Sanu is a decent second fiddle, but the Falcons‘ passing game is shaping up to be Julio Jones-or-bust once again.
» Nothing against Jacob Tamme, who has found his niche in the NFL, but I expect rookie Austin Hooper to play a major role in the passing game from the tight end spot, even if he doesn’t leap into the starting gig.
» Second-round pick Deion Jones is on the small side, but I’m sliding him right into the Falcons‘ starting lineup, because the other options made me want to yak on my computer screen. Jones should provide much-needed speed to Atlanta linebacker corps.
» Speaking of linebackers, it’s interesting the team’s official website now lists Vic Beasley as an OLB. Given that he’s a candidate to break out rushing the passer this season, I don’t expect coach Dan Quinn to drop him in coverage. When getting to the quarterback is your biggest need, you don’t put your most talented rusher in space.
» The Falcons boosted the defensive front this offseason and rookie safety Keanu Neal should start in the secondary, but this group still appears wanting looking at it on paper. (Yes, Mr. Internet Troll, I’m fully aware NFL games aren’t played on paper; save your angry keystrokes.)
New Orleans Saints
|QB: Drew Brees||DE: Cameron Jordan|
|RB: Mark Ingram||NT: John Jenkins|
|WR1: Brandin Cooks||DT: Sheldon Rankins|
|WR2: Michael Thomas||DE: Hau’oli Kikaha|
|WR3: Willie Snead||OLB: Dannell Ellerbe|
|TE: Coby Fleener||MLB: James Laurinaitis|
|LT: Terron Armstead||OLB: Stephone Anthony|
|LG: Tim Lelito||CB1: Delvin Breaux|
|C: Max Unger||CB2: Keenan Lewis|
|RG: Andrus Peat||S: Kenny Vaccaro|
|RT: Zach Strief||S: Jairus Byrd|
» Where Andrus Peat will play this season remains a question entering the summer. At this stage I’m sliding him into guard, with the Saints hoping to eke out one more year of Zach Strief. New Orleans doesn’t have a better option at guard in the present. Getting the five best blockers in front of Drew Brees is vital, even if Peat’s future is at right tackle.
» I’m not buying any Saints tight end hype this year. Coby Fleener didn’t pop in Indy and Josh Hill has been more projection than production.Benjamin Watson‘s 2015 season feels like less evidence Fleener and Hill will have bust-out seasons and more like an anomaly predicated on a quarterback’s trust of a seasoned vet.
» I’m not a huge James Laurinaitis fan, but his signing gives the Saintsflexibility to reshuffle the linebacker corps, pushing Stephon Anthony to the outside. It also allows Hau’oli Kikaha to move to defensive end. He’ll be undersized as a pass rusher, but as a rookie Kikaha was much better getting after the quarterback than dropping in coverage. TheSaints have a need at pass rusher and shifting Kikaha to end could be an in-house solution.
» I’m not ready to snipe Jairus Byrd yet. Vonn Bell might possess some of the same characteristics, but a team devoid of defensive talent isn’t likely to toss aside potential playmakers — especially ones who offer no cap relief if cut. We could see some three-safety sets with Kenny Vaccaro playing a hybrid role if Bell forces his way onto the field.
» What will the backfield look like behind Mark Ingram? Tim Hightower was a revelation late last season, but can he be counted on for a full season? C.J. Spiller was a huge disappointment after major hype. Perhaps rookie Daniel Lasco could supplant Spiller as a cheaper satellite back.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
|QB: Jameis Winston||DE: Noah Spence|
|RB: Doug Martin||DT: Gerald McCoy|
|WR1: Mike Evans||DT: Akeem Spence|
|WR2: Vincent Jackson||DE: Robert Ayers|
|TE1: Austin Seferian-Jenkins||OLB: Lavonte David|
|TE2: Cameron Brate||MLB: Kwon Alexander|
|LT: Donovan Smith||OLB: Daryl Smith|
|LG: J.R. Sweezy||CB1: Brent Grimes|
|C: Joe Hawley||CB2: Alterraun Verner|
|RG: Ali Marpet||S: Chris Conte|
|RT: Demar Dotson||SS: Bradley McDougald|
» The third wideout spot behind Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson remains unaddressed. Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cameron Brate offer a solid pass-catch tight end duo — health permitting — and better options in space than the spare-part receivers on the roster. I’d like to see Charles Simsmotion to the slot more to help bridge the gap in the receiving corps for Winston.
» First-round pick Vernon Hargreaveswill get a chance to earn a starting gig, but corners notoriously struggle out of the gate. He should push Alterraun Verner and Brent Grimes at least by midseason and perhaps Jonathan Banks off the roster.
» Chris Conte is a subpar safety, but unless rookie Ryan Smith lights the world on fire in training camp, he’s the best option currently. Perhaps defensive coordinator Mike Smith will utilize more three corner sets, given his depth at cornerback and talent-lacking safeties.
» Could the Bucs run more 3-4 fronts in 2016? The move would get rookie Noah Spence andLavonte David on the edge rushing the passer, with Gerald McCoy and Robert Ayers pushing from defensive end spots. Kwon Alexander and Daryl Smith would then clean up the middle. Tampa has struggled to get to the quarterback in recent year, necessitating creativity with the front seven.