1. New Orleans Saints
Training camp solution: The Saints entered August trying to establish roles at key positions, including tailback, receiver, tight end, and in the defensive front seven. They emerged with most dilemmas answered. Pierre Thomas may start, but Mark Ingram will get most of the backfield touches. Marques Colston's knee remains a concern, so Lance Moore will play more snaps to compensate. Jimmy Graham is the real deal at tight end. The linebacker unit is still in flux, but defensive end has shaken out with Alex Brown cut and newly signed Turk McBride now a starter.
Sean Gardner / Reuters
Saints quarterback Drew Brees celebrates a touchdown to receiver Marques Colston.
Hanging problems: Injuries have been somewhat of a concern, and it's not just Colston. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin missed a chunk of camp with a sprained MCL, and cornerback Tracy Porter has been eased in after offseason knee surgery. Moore missed a week with a groin pull.
Surprise: Drew Brees' struggles. The Saints' five-time Pro Bowl quarterback labored through the preseason, completing a pedestrian 23-of-41 passes (56.1 percent) for 304 yards, no scores, and no interceptions. Preseason statistics can be misleading, but they're worth noting because Brees' top receiver is hobbled and the offense is in some flux. Ultimately, Brees should be fine by September 8.
Outlook: The Saints have a roster superior to Atlanta's and a coaching staff proven to be among the NFL's best. This should pan out as an 11-win team at worst and legit Super Bowl contender.
Training camp solution: Explosive plays and mismatches were the buzz words in Falcons camp, and early returns were promising. With 29 1/2-year-old tailback Michael Turner in decline, the team has renewed emphasis on the pass game. In a sign of things to come, Matt Ryan attempted an otherworldly 42 first-half passes in the third preseason game. This will be a high-flying offense in the Georgia Dome, with Julio Jones and Harry Douglas exhibiting rare after-catch explosion.
Don Wright / AP
Julio Jones gives the Falcons yet another offeensive weapon.
Hanging problems: Atlanta's roster has no glaring weaknesses, especially after signing defensive end Ray Edwards to a relatively affordable $30 million contract. The biggest concern has been the secondary as evidenced by the Falcons' playoff loss to Green Bay. G.M. Thomas Dimitroff didn't ignore it, though, signing ex-Super Bowl star Kelvin Hayden as a third cornerback and versatile safety James Sanders to play a reserve role. The Falcons are also coming off a healthy camp.
Surprise: Julio Jones was the star of camp, coming on quicker than even his biggest supporters could've imagined. The draft's sixth overall pick, Jones played in a deliberate-moving offense at Alabama, where he was relegated to possession receiver duties. He showed much better "play speed" in practice and preseason on the Georgia Dome turf, consistently outrunning defenders.
Outlook: The Falcons are equipped to compete with the league's elite, and they'll give the Saints a serious run in the NFC South. New Orleans also made major talent upgrades to its roster, though. Assuming both of their quarterbacks stay healthy, each team has a postseason berth in its future.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Training camp solution: The Bucs caught a break when the league decided against suspending cornerback Aqib Talib after a felony weapon arrest during the lockout. And the rest of the news has been mostly good, too. Rookie defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers both look like immediate impact players, while the interior defensive line and linebacker corps both project as strengths. Quarterback Josh Freeman continues to develop into a franchise passer.
Peter Aiken / Getty Images
Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount only averaged 2.1 yards a carry during the preseason.
Hanging problems: So far, Tampa Bay's transition from a zone-blocking to power-running system has been rocky. Running back LeGarrette Blount struggled to the tune of 2.1 yards per carry in the preseason, and the Bucs lack a quality alternative. Such is the case throughout the Buccaneers' offense; they just don't have much depth. This is a good, young team built through the draft and forward-thinking waiver moves, but it's not ready to take the next step.
Surprise: With Arrelious Benn rehabbing a late-season ACL tear, Dezmon Briscoe stepped up to lead the Bucs with seven receptions for 80 preseason yards. A physical receiver with deceptive speed, Briscoe excels over the middle and has at least earned a role in three-receiver sets for when Benn gets back to 100 percent. There has been even speculation that Briscoe will start.
Outlook: The Bucs preyed on one of the NFL's weakest schedules to rack up 10 wins last year. Every team in the NFC South improved this offseason, and the sledding will get much tougher. Expect a decline in the win column, but continued on-field development for Tampa's young core.
4. Carolina Panthers
Training camp solution: A Cam-centric camp. The Panthers are rushing No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton onto the field, and confirmed their intentions by starting him in three of the four preseason games. What Carolina can offer Newton is one of the league's most talented offensive lines and a star-studded backfield. Ideally, Newton will open the season throwing just 20 or so times a game. He struggled as a passer in exhibition games, looking more comfortable running the ball.
Chris Keane / Reuters
The Panthers insist on playing Cam Newton right from the start.
Hanging problems: While Newton's future may be bright, his inaccurate passing and quarterback learning curve are problems the Panthers must overcome to be competitive. Newton finished the preseason with a completion rate of 42.1 percent on 57 throws. There's no reason to think the light will go on in real games, so Carolina will have to run the football as a means of "protecting" Newton.
Surprise: The Panthers suffered year-ending injuries to starting receiver David Gettis (knee) and swing offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz in camp, hurting depth at each position. The surprise -- and disappointment -- is that Chargers castoff Legedu Naanee beat out 2010 third-round pick Brandon LaFell to replace Gettis. Carolina needs big contributions from tight end Greg Olsen to make up for its weakness at No. 2 wideout. Naanee would be a fifth receiver on a good team.
Outlook: The Panthers could push for 8-8 if they didn't have such a project at quarterback. As is, 6-10 would probably be an accomplishment. They'll still be more competitive than most think.
CSN: The Super Bowl's golden anniversary will be held in the Golden State. The new stadium, which opens in 2014, in Santa Clara will host Super Bowl L two years later, the NFL announced Tuesday.
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