As training camp approaches, we take a look at the players on each team who will be most heavily scrutinized. The list contains a fair amount of quarterbacks — no stunner there — but we tried to highlight as many non-QBs as we could. The players highlighted range from rookies to veterans with 10 or more years of experience.
In the seventh of an eight-part series, we look at the NFC South from the 2011 order of finish:
Saints QB Drew Brees
A city hero and franchise savior currently sits in a swamp of bad feelings, and there’s no team that could use a little brightening more than the Saints. In a matter of five months, they have gone from Super Bowl contenders to a discipline-gutted team — with Brees’ contract stalemate providing a dark backdrop. The two sides still could come to an agreement on a long-term deal by the July 16 deadline, but if Brees has to play this season on the one-year franchise tender (worth $16.371 million) the feeling is that he will be none too happy about it. The Saints need Brees more than ever to have another great season with head coach Sean Payton missing the season and the rest of the staff somewhat in flux early on.
Others worth mentioning: DT Sedrick Ellis, LB Curtis Lofton.
Falcons OLT Sam Baker
PFW’s Dan Parr recently spoke with QB Matt Ryan, who supported his offensive linemen. It was a vote of confidence, yes, but the players still must perform better. Baker tops the list. He’s in danger of losing his starting OLT job permanently if he doesn’t improve and hold off either Will Svitek or third-round rookie Lamar Holmes. The Falcons didn’t add much else in the offseason but could find a remaining candidate in free agency (ex-Charger Marcus McNeill remains available) or add a cast-off around cutdown time during the preseason.
Others worth mentioning: DE Ray Edwards, LB Sean Weatherspoon.
Panthers ORT Jeff Otah
Otah has come to a crossroads in his career. When healthy, he’s a massive road grader who can spearhead the power run game, a staple in Carolina. But too often, Otah has been banged up, missing 35 games (while playing only 29) in his four pro seasons. The Panthers have to know what they have in Otah, whose rookie contract runs out after this season. His backup, Byron Bell, was too penalty-prone in his place last season. And though the team has no natural other replacement on the roster, they could cut ties with him if he turns in another injury-addled season.
Others worth mentioning: LB Jon Beason, NT Ron Edwards.
Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman
Freeman burst on to the scene with a terrific 2010 season and then self-immolated with a nightmarish ’11 campaign. His backslide was shocking, going from 25 TD passes and nine turnovers in ’10 to 16 TD passes and 27 turnovers last season. There have been a variety of reasons attributed for the regression, but Freeman believes that a slimmer frame (he says he has lost about 20 pounds) will make a big difference. But commitment counts, too, and the previous coaching staff was guilty of coddling Freeman and making him the franchise centerpiece before he was fully established. The new staff, led by businesslike Greg Schiano, won’t do that — and it won’t accept anything short of wholesale progress in a transitional season in Tampa.
Others worth mentioning: DT Gerald McCoy, WR Vincent Jackson.