2011 training-camp reports
Juiciest story line: The team's one big free-agent addition, DE Ray Edwards, is recovering from offseason knee surgery, head coach Mike Smith recently announced. The injury kept Edwards out of the first preseason game. When will he be ready to play? The Falcons have title aspirations this season and they need Edwards (16½ sacks the past two seasons) to help improve their pass rush.
Player to watch: Sixth-round pick Matt Bosher is in line to kick off, punt and hold on placekicks. It's a lot for a rookie to handle right away, and Mike Smith has said he's anxious to see how Bosher performs under pressure. Atlanta will be in a jam if he doesn't respond well.
Strongest position: Pairing first-round rookie Julio Jones with All-Pro Roddy White gives the Falcons one of the league's top WR tandems, and it should help the team's passing game reach new heights. White is already an elite player, and Jones has the ability to join him in that rare category of players.
Weakest position: Garrett Reynolds has the lead over Mike Johnson in the competition to be the starting right guard. Both players have good size, but they don't have game experience, and if one of them doesn't pan out, the Falcons don't have a trusted veteran to turn to.
Juiciest story line: Jimmy Clausen was named the starter in the first preseason game, but will first overall pick Cam Newton pass him on the depth chart before Week One? The Panthers would like to see that happen, but what will they do if neither player establishes himself as the obvious choice to start?
Player to watch: One of the training-camp surprises is Eric Norwood, a fourth-round pick in 2010. He passed Everette Brown on the depth chart for the starting spot at right end. Norwood was a tweener when he entered the league, spending time at linebacker and end last season, but he's playing end exclusively this season.
Strongest position: Re-signing DeAngelo Williams allowed the Panthers to keep a loaded arsenal of running backs. With Williams and Jonathan Stewart serving as one of the league's top rushing tandems, Mike Goodson, who had two 100-yard games last year, is the very capable third back.
Weakest position: The QB group — Clausen, Newton, Derek Anderson and Tony Pike — doesn't inspire much confidence. Newton and Clausen have great upside, but they're developing. Bad decision making and costly turnovers could be the norm under center for the Panthers.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Juiciest story line: Sources in New Orleans are saying 2011 is feeling a lot like '09 — the season they won the Super Bowl — at Saints camp. The team did an outstanding job of filling in gaps, and keeping other ones from opening, in free agency, and there already was a strong core in place.
Player to watch: New Orleans is preparing to be without its best defensive end, DRE Will Smith, for the first four games of the season while he serves a suspension, stemming from the StarCaps case. It's not clear who will start in his place, but free-agent addition Turk McBride is listed as his top backup and could be the best option to fill in. Jeff Charleston is also competing for reps at the position.
Strongest position: The offensive line is very solid as a whole, but the Saints are particularly well-equipped at guard with OLG Carl Nicks and ORG Jahri Evans. Both players are All-Pro caliber and in their prime. There isn't great depth at the position, but the starters are durable — Evans and Nicks have never missed a game.
Weakest position: There are several players competing to start, and make the roster, at outside linebacker, but it's one of the few areas where the Saints lack star power. There are some young players who have to emerge and some decent but unremarkable veterans.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Juiciest story line: Can rookie DEs Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers make the instant pass-rushing impact that the Bucs need? Tampa Bay spent its top two picks on the tandem in this year's draft, and expectations are high for them.
Player to watch: It's expected that WR Arrelious Benn, a second-round pick in 2010, will be the starting flanker, but it's not yet clear when he'll be ready to assume that role. He's still trying to return from ACL surgery and didn't play in the first preseason game. Benn's recovery will be monitored closely. He has breakout potential if healthy.
Strongest position: The Bucs have a good trio at corner. Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib are the starters, and E.J. Biggers is a quality nickel back. Barber doesn't make many mistakes, and Talib is a playmaker with 15 interceptions in his first three seasons. Biggers can fill in well if one of the starters suffers an injury.
Weakest position: It's asking a lot of Mason Foster and Tyrone McKenzie — the two contenders to start at middle linebacker (Foster is first on the depth chart) — to step in and replace Barrett Ruud without missing a beat. Foster, a rookie third-round pick, has impressed the coaching staff and is likely to start in Week One.