Brian Allee-Walsh

Here’s why each team in NFC South should be feeling great

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton rushes out of the pocket during training camp Sunday, July 31, 2016, in Spartanburg, SC.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton rushes out of the pocket during training camp Sunday, July 31, 2016, in Spartanburg, SC. AP

Here we are barely a week into training camp and everything is coming up wine and roses around the NFL.

Hope springs eternal from sea to shining sea.

Every team is 0-0. Every team is getting better every day so the coaches say, including Atlanta, three-time defending division champ Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay in the NFC South.

With that in mind, let's go on a quick spin around the division.

Atlanta

Falcons' owner Arthur Blank signed quarterback Matt Ryan to a six-year, $103.75 million contract following their run to the NFC championship game in January 2013. But instead of taking it up a notch, the Falcons have fallen on hard times, going 18-30 and missing the playoffs the past three seasons.

Ryan looked out of sorts at times last season trying to operate efficiently in Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan's run-oriented, play-action scheme. Ryan committed 21 turnovers (five games with multiple INTs) and the offense struggled mightily in the red zone.

Much was made of their seemingly strained relationship as a once promising season (6-1) ended in a funk (8-8). Both tried to defuse talk of trouble in Falcon-ville, but it was apparent Shanahan's offense didn't bring out Ryan's best.

If Ryan stays on this troubling path and problems again persist this season, Shanahan might put second-year coach Dan Quinn in an awkward position come January. Suffice to say, the Matty-Ice of 2012 needs to resurface this season.

Carolina

While losing to Denver in Super Bowl 50 put a damper on a fairytale-like season, the Panthers remain a very good football team even without elite cornerback Josh Norman. Why? Because quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly are super freaks.

General manager Dave Gettleman is banking on a top-10 caliber defense led by linebacker Thomas Davis and Kuechly and a deep, richly talented defensive line to ease the reshuffling of the deck in the secondary without Norman.

Plus, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin rejoins the mix after missing the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL. He should be a welcome relief for Newton and offensive coordinator Milke Shula, especially in the red zone where the 6-5, 245-pound Benjamin proved to be a monster during his rookie season in '14.

Benjamin's absence was never more evident than in Super Bowl 50.

New Orleans

For this franchise to become relevant again, the defensive unit will have to become respectable in a hurry. In other words, being historically bad the past two seasons is no way to go through life, no matter how prolific quarterback Drew Brees and the offense.

That's why the addition of free agent linebacker James Laurinaitis could be a godsend for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Laurinaitis epitomizes the meaning of a football player, a captain's captain. He is dependable, durable and brings a wealth of experience to the huddle after essentially flying under the radar the last seven seasons in St. Louis.

Whether Allen can make a discernible difference in his role remains to be seen. If nothing else, an argument can be made that the defense can't be any worse. Too, Allen and coach Sean Payton have a good relationship and the longstanding respect of one another and that should help.

The bottom line is as long as Brees remains breathing, the Saints have a chance to be successful. The problem is he can't play defense, too.

Tampa Bay

Winning is contagious. So is losing, and the Bucs are presently stuck at the bottom of the NFC South where they have finished each of the last five seasons.

They appear to be close to turning the corner, finishing No. 5 in total offense and No. 10 in total defense last season with only a 6-10 leger to show for it. The Glazer family is banking on first-year coach Dirk Koetter helping second-year quarterback Jameis Winston fulfill the lofty expectations of a player viewed as the face of the franchise.

Whether Koetter can end five consecutive losing seasons (23-57) and get the Bucs back into the playoffs for the first time since 2007 remains to be seen. They better step lively. The last two regimes under coaches Lovie Smith and Greg Schiano each lasted two years and were ended abruptly by the Glazers.

But hope springs eternal on the Left Coast of Florida (for the umpteenth time), largely because of a rising star in Winston and a promising defense. Can they get in the playoffs? Probably not. But these Bucs could be a tough out during the regular season.

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