NFC South training camp storylines to watch

The NFC South offers some impressive storylines as we eek closer toward training camp at the end of July. First, drew Brees officially retired from the NFL. The Falcons lost one of the best receivers of this generation. The Panthers decided to trade for a quarterback instead of drafting one. Oh, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bring back all 22 starters from their Super Bowl squad. And that’s just the start.

NFC South training camp storylines

What are the top stories going into the NFC South training camp cycle?

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons made wholesale changes in their organization over the past calendar year. They fired head coach Dann Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after an 0-5 start to the season. Atlanta then replaced them with Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot, respectively.

The most highlight-worthy storyline going into the NFC South training camp cycle is top-five pick Kyle Pitts. The cell phone videos of him elevating over defensive backs in seven-on-sevens and team drills should light up the internet. The talented pass catcher has some big gloves to fill, though. Atlanta traded away the best receiver of this generation as part of their rebuild and created enough cap space to sign their rookies.

However, the most fascinating part of Falcons camp will be seeing what personnel groupings Arthur Smith goes with and what formations go along with said groupings. There isn’t much in the way of depth behind Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage. I imagine there will be a lot of 12 personnel usage with Pitts and fellow tight end Hayden Hurst.

In each of Smith’s two seasons as an offensive coordinator, he used Jonnu Smith to pass protect at a top-10 rate. How does he mold the offense to feature his two playmaking tight ends?

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers’ future isn’t necessarily contingent upon the success of Sam Darnold, but fans will always make comparisons between him and Bears quarterback Justin Fields. Even though the Panthers dealt for Darnold before the draft, people will question that move, whether fair or not.

The progression of Darnold, who at this point is a reclamation project, should be aided by a different (and by different, I mean better) culture than the one created by Adam Gase in New York. Joe Brady will develop a system to best cater toward Darnold’s strengths. Rhule has proven to be a program builder, so what is one man to a builder of cities? Training camp for the Panthers in the NFC South won’t be the first time Rhule and Brady have had their eyes on Darnold, but it is the most important time they’ll share before Week 1.

Another interesting part of Carolina’s team is their young defensive nucleus. Brian Burns enters his third NFL season, attempting to become one of the league’s premier pass rushers. The rest of the presumed starters on defense are comprised of second-year players. Jeremy Chinn had an excellent rookie season at safety for the Panthers, and Cornerback Jaycee Horn looks to do the same thing for the Panthers on the outside in 2021.

New Orleans Saints

Is there anything more exciting than Jameis Winston playing quarterback? Sure, Patrick Mahomes makes incredible plays left and right. Okay, maybe Lamar Jackson is the most electric player in the league. But not knowing whether the next pass attempt will be a touchdown or an interception is what can really make you stand up out of your seat.

In all seriousness, the potential quarterback competition in New Orleans should be the single biggest storyline heading into NFC South training camps. Sean Payton is a madman. He took snaps away from a Hall of Fame lock in favor of Taysom Hill.

Another storyline coming from the Saints is who the heck will emerge as the offensive weapons behind Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara?

The Saints’ defense proved outstanding in 2020. It will be interesting to see how they fair in 2021 without an established CB2 option (although Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is a great player in coverage, he’s a nickel/safety).

NFC South training camp storylines for the Super Bowl champion

All 22 starters return. No hiccups could interfere with a repeat, right?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers are more difficult to wonder about going into NFC South training camps as they have so few unknowns heading into camp. Can they repeat as champions, becoming the first team to do so since, well, Tom Brady’s 2003-2004 New England Patriots?

On that note, Brady, as evident from the date of those Patriots teams, is old. How long can the 43-year-old’s body hold up? I’m not going to be the one to count Brady out anymore. He’s built differently.

The development of some of the Buccaneers’ young defenders should be at the top of the list of training camp stories. Can Devin White continue his seemingly assured progression into becoming arguably the best linebacker in the league? Can Antoine Winfield Jr. become more consistent in coverage heading into 2021? Seeing Joe Tryon for the first time since 2019 will be fascinating as well. It will be fun to follow how well the 2020 opt-outs fare early on.

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Dalton Miller is the Lead NFL Analyst at Pro Football Network. You can read more of his work here and follow him @daltonbmiller on Twitter and Twitch