NFC South healthy and ready to go
Atlanta: Free-agent middle linebacker Ed Hartwell, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, will bring much-needed speed and toughness to the run defense. He also is capable of doing something that last year's starter, Chris Draft, didn't do consistently enough -- help free up weakside linebacker Keith Brooking to maximize his speed and athleticism in making plays. Free agent Ike Reese, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles, is a sparkplug for special teams and will challenge for a starting spot at strongside linebacker. First-round draft pick Roddy White, from Alabama-Birmingham, was highly impressive during offseason workouts and should see significant playing time as a third receiver -- if he doesn't unseat Dez White, behind whom he is listed on the depth chart, for a starting spot. The rookie is strong and physical, although his route running leaves something to be desired. Second-round draft choice Jonathan Babineaux, a defensive tackle from Iowa, figures to be a solid contributor as a reserve. He has exceptional speed for a tackle.
New Orleans: The Saints helped their offense significantly by signing free-agent guard Jermane Mayberry from the Eagles and making offensive tackle Jammal Brown (Oklahoma) their first-round draft pick. As a 10-year veteran, Mayberry brings plenty of experience and versatility to the starting job at right guard. He is an exceptional drive-blocker on running plays, but is no less comfortable setting up in pass protection. Brown has the strength and the intelligence to be an anchor at right tackle. The Saints need him to make a strong impact as a rookie, which is especially difficult for an offensive tackle, given the inconsistent play of left tackle Wayne Gandy. Free safety Dwight Smith, formerly of Tampa Bay, is a nice addition to the secondary. His main role is to provide run support, but he is solid enough in coverage to fill in at cornerback in an emergency.
Tampa Bay: First-round draft pick Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, from Auburn, made an immediate splash in offseason workouts with his fluid and highly instinctive running. He offers a rare combination of exceptional speed and power to move the pile. Even Michael Pittman, whom Williams will likely unseat as a starter, has called Williams a "tremendous talent." The Bucs look to have the best of both worlds at tight end. Third-round draft pick Alex Smith, of Stanford, excels at catching the ball, while free agent Anthony Becht, formerly of the New York Jets, is an excellent blocker. After two disappointing seasons in Minnesota, free-agent defensive tackle Chris Hovan looks as if he could make an impact generating inside pressure on an already strong pass-rush unit, particularly because he will be surrounded by better players up front.
Carolina: The Panthers have filled -- or potentially filled -- several starting and key reserve spots through free agency: Cornerback Ken Lucas (Seattle), free safety Idrees Bashir (Indianapolis), tight end Freddie Jones (Arizona) and offensive guard Mike Wahle (Green Bay). Besides offering exceptional quickness, Lucas also keeps mistakes to a minimum and won't hesitate to lend support against the run. Although Bashir isn't known as a big hitter, he does have the speed and quickness to lend formidable help in coverage. Jones is a dependable pass-catcher, although his blocking leaves something to be desired. Wahle's speed and footwork make him highly effective when pulling. He invested plenty of time in the offseason studying videotape of Panthers running backs in order to become familiar with their various styles and tendencies; he has noticed stark differences in the way they cut back versus Green Bay's running backs. First-round draft pick Thomas Davis, a safety/linebacker from Georgia, made a strong impression during offseason practices with his work at both positions. Even if he doesn't start, he should see plenty of action as a reserve and is expected to make a major impact in run support. Second-round pick Eric Shelton, from Louisville, helps bring stability to a running back position whose two top players -- Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster -- are returning from injuries.
KEY POSITION BATTLES
Atlanta: Demorrio Williams versus Reese for starting strongside linebacker. Williams made a strong impression as a rookie last season, but still needs to refine his game. As a reserve for the Eagles last year, Reese registered an impressive 52 tackles, and his experience and savvy could ultimately give him an edge.
Carolina: Chris Weinke and fourth-round draft pick Stefan LeFors (Louisville) are expected to wage a fairly spirited battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Jake Delhomme. Weinke's lack of arm strength is a major flaw that has kept him from being a starter, but he needs to be sharper mentally to overcome it. LeFors has the skills to win the backup spot, although his smallish frame is a negative.
THE EARLY READ
The Falcons still look like the team to beat in a fairly competitive division. With a healthy Michael Vick at quarterback and a commitment to having a strong running game, the Falcons will continue to pose major headaches to every defense on their schedule. Their switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense last year proved highly effective, and the unit should perform even better with Ed Donatell in his second season as defensive coordinator. They also made some solid acquisitions that should bring improvement to offense, defense, and special teams.
The Panthers seem to have the best chance of challenging for the division crown, mainly because they are getting four key players back from injury: defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, wide receiver Steve Smith, Davis and Foster.
Despite some nice offensive additions, the Saints remain an erratic club whose quarterback, Aaron Brooks, is too much of a wild card for one to say with any confidence that they can be a major factor. The Buccaneers could be a surprise, but it all depends on their offense. Jon Gruden remains one of the NFL's foremost offensive deep thinkers, but he needs players to carry out those deep thoughts.
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