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NFC South preview: Will Kelvin Benjamin return keep Panthers on top?

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Time to take a division by division look at the teams the 49ers will not play. We move on to the NFC South.

Over the last two weeks, we put together a look at each of the San Francisco 49ers 13 opponents with a little help from SB Nation’s network of bloggers. Each person answered a few questions, providing a nice, basic rundown to help preview training camp. We got through that on Monday with the Seattle Seahawks. You can find the rest in our opponents section on the site.

Since we still have two weeks until the 49ers report to training camp, I thought why not use the 18 non-49ers previews to take a look at the rest of the league. The 49ers will not play the 18 teams outside of the playoffs and preseason, but it is always interesting to know more about the rest of the league. And so, we’re going to look at each division over the next week, combing four team previews for each post. We started with the AFC North, AFC South, AFC West, AFC East, NFC East, and NFC North, and today we move on to the NFC South. We broke down each team individually, but I thought I’d combine them together so people can compare and contrast all four teams together.

The NFC South is a fascinating division, even as it seems to fly under the radar for some reason. The Carolina Panthers look to defend their division and conference crown, welcoming back Kelvin Benjamin. The wide receiver missed all last season, and will be a huge addition to this offense. Considering Ted Ginn was their leading wide reciever, this is kind of a big deal.

The rest of the division is a toss-up. The Saints will look to improve their defense and try and get something in case Drew Brees departs as a free agent. The Bucs will look to build on Jameis Winston’s strong rookie season. And the Falcons? They’re a bizarre team with a solid but not great quarterback, and they just seem to be running in place.

Carolina Panthers

Notable free agent additions:

  • DT Paul Soliai - Expected to back-up Star Lotulelei
  • C/OG Gino Gradkowski - versatile back-up for the interior o-line
  • P Mike Scifres - coming off a leg injury

Notable free agent departures:

  • CB Josh Norman - Panthers rescinded franchise tag and he signed with the Redskins
  • DE Jared Allen - retirement
  • CB Charles Tillman - he is still a free agent as he heals from an ACL injury; says if he plays again it will be for the Panthers only
  • P Brad Nortman - Jaguars overpaid for his services
  • S Roman Harper - Panthers did not offer; now back in New Orleans

Trades:

Ha! As if Dave Gettleman would trade a player away. He did make a draft pick trade to move up in the draft at one point.

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies:

  • DT Vernon Butler - Should be in the DT rotation at some point
  • One of the rookie CBs (James Bradberry, Darryl Worley, Zack Sanchez) should get significant snaps if not start; currently Bradberry has the edge

Biggest offseason addition:

At 345 lbs that would be Soliai. Impact-wise the Panthers didn’t add a veteran starter besides the punter.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp:

The return of WR Kelvin Benjamin. Though statistically the Panthers didn’t seem to miss Benjamin don’t tell Cam Newton that. Benjamin’s 73 catches for 1,003 yards and 9 TDs as a rookie in 2014 was sorely missed at times in 2015.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp:

WR Devin Funchess has turned heads at OTAs with his maturity (he’s only 22), route running and hands. While the Panthers top 3 WRs (Benjamin, Ginn and Brown) can certainly make great catches, all three are prone to drops. If Funchess can prove to be more reliable he can garner more targets and challenge as the Panthers #2 WR.

Notable injuries heading into training camp:

  • RB Jonathan Stewart appears to still have issues from his leg injury in SB50. Though he is expected to be 100% by TC we will be keeping an eye on him.
  • CB Bene Benwikere and WR Kelvin Benjamin have been declared 100% from their 2015 season ending injuries.

New Orleans Saints

Notable free agent additions: TE Coby Fleener; DT Nick Fairley; LB Craig Robertson

Notable free agent departures: WR Marques Colston; G Jahri Evans; LBs David Hawthorne & Ramon Humber

Trades: Traded their 2016 3rd & 4th round picks to the Patriots to move back into the 2nd round (61st overall) and acquire S Vonn Bell; Traded their 2016 & 2017 5th round picks to the Washington Redskins to get a 4th round pick and selected DL David Onyemata

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies: DT Sheldon Rankins (Round 1); S Vonn Bell Round 2); WR Michael Thomas (Round 2); DL David Onyemata (Round 4)

Biggest offseason addition: This will be a point of contention for many Saints’ fans, but the Saints’ biggest offseason addition on the field will presumably be rookie Sheldon Rankins. The Saints’ complete lack of interior pass rush in 2015 is what led to this pick, and he was the consensus pick for many experts once he outstripped Alabama NT A’Shawn Robinson in most workouts. A notable mention goes to TE Coby Fleener, but with Drew Brees giving Benjamin Watson the best receiving season of his career just last season, the Saints likely see TE as a plug & play position these days.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp: With what has consistently been one of the worst defenses in the NFL for several years (really since the departure of Gregg Williams), the Saints hope that Dennis Allen can bring them some stability at the defensive coordinator position. Allen was the Saints’ DC for 6 games last season, in which the Saints went 3-3. Known as a secondary coach first, Allen hopes to bring the Saints up from the depths of being one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history last year.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: Getting carries in a running back by committee system is always a battle, and the Saints have a few hungry players this year. Tim Hightower’s surprising breakout towards the end of last year led to the Saints re-signing him to a one year deal. Rookie RB Daniel Lasco is a lifelong Saints’ fan getting the opportunity to prove himself to the Saints, and sophomore Daniel Murphy is vying for carries as well after primarily serving as a return specialist in his rookie year. CJ Spiller is heading into the second year of his 4 year deal after a massively disappointing 2015, and the Saints hope to recapture some of the excitement that he brought to the Buffalo offense.

Notable injuries heading into training camp: OLB Hau’oli Kikaha (Torn ACL); CB Kyle Wilson (Torn Labrum); S Jairus Byrd (Knee); CB Keenan Lewis (Knee/Hip); RB CJ Spiller (Knee)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Notable free agent additions: Brent Grimes, J.R. Sweezy, Robert Ayers, Daryl Smith, Josh Robinson

Notable free agent departures: Danny Lansanah, Sterling Moore, Logan Mankins (retired)

Trades: None

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies: Vernon Hargreaves, Noah Spence, Roberto Aguayo

Biggest offseason addition: Mike Smith (defensive coordinator), Brent Grimes

Biggest storyline heading into training camp: Can Vernon Hargreaves earn a starting spot?

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: Who will win the third receiver job?

Notable injuries heading into training camp: Louis Murphy, JR Sweezy

Atlanta Falcons

Notable free agent additions: Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu, Courtney Upshaw, Derrick Shelby

Notable free agent departures: They weren’t really free agents, but the team parted ways with veteran SS William Moore, WR Roddy White and DT Paul Soliai.

Trades: none

Draft picks expected to contribute as rookies: Strong safety Keanu Neal should start, LB Deion Jones is competing for the starting middle linebacker role, and fourth rounder De’Vondre Campbell is trying to earn the starting weakside linebacker spot.

Biggest offseason addition: Without question, Alex Mack. Atlanta’s interior line play was a liability last season, and having a center of Mack’s caliber to anchor the line should make a tremendous difference. The Falcons paid Mack accordingly, too.

Biggest storyline heading into training camp: Almost certainly the rookie linebackers. That position group has been a weakness for the Falcons, and in Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, Atlanta added the speed Dan Quinn needs to execute his defense effectively. Both have opportunities to unseat veterans and earn starting roles.

Under-the-radar storyline heading into training camp: The kicker competition! No, seriously. Matt Bryant has been with the Falcons for years, and he’s won a lot of games for this team. Last year, he was significantly impacted by injury, landing on injured reserve toward the end of the season, and the Falcons will have an undrafted free agent rookie, Nick Rose, in camp who can challenge Bryant for the job.

Notable injuries heading into training camp: Devin Hester is continuing to recover from surgery to address the turf toe that sidelined him for a chunk of last season. Rookie Devin Fuller has been working through a hamstring injury. Right guard Chris Chester was dealing with a shoulder injury during OTAs and minicamp, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has some tendinitis in his knee that slowed him down this offseason.