NFC South Position Analysis

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC South entering Thursday's regular-season opener:

ATLANTA

QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Joey Harrington. Backups -- Chris Redman

Harrington has had a very good preseason and he said he feels more effective than ever because of the scheme that puts the quarterback in control of every play. Harrington's decision making has always been his weakness and in this system, there is little margin for error. Redman has comeback nicely from being out of football for a season.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- TB Warrick Dunn; FB Ovie Mughelli. Backups -- TB Jerious Norwood, Jason Snelling; FB -- Corey McIntyre, Snelling

Though the explosive Norwood appears to be a better fit in this system, Dunn's experience in handling the key nuances of the game are why he will be the main ball carrier. Norwood is going to get plenty of reps but Dunn has been more adept at too many things for coach Bobby Petrino to throw Norwood into a heavy workload. Mughelli will serve as Dunn's and Norwood's bodyguard. He might touch the ball about as much as tackle Wayne Gandy.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Alge Crumpler. Backups -- Dwayne Blakley, Martrez Milner

Crumpler missed most of the offseason and training camp recovering from knee surgery. Him staying healthy is vital because he's the wildcard in Petrino's offense. He can line up at tight end, flex wide or play H-back. Petrino and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson have installed packages that include Crumpler and Blakley in non-tradition, dual-tight-end sets.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Joe Horn, Michael Jenkins. Backups -- Roddy White, Laurent Robinson, Adam Jennings

The addition of Horn immediately upgrades the Falcons' most maligned unit. Petrino has intentionally not utilized Horn much in preseason. Instead, he's gotten the ball to White and Jenkins, possibly to boost their confidence and years of struggling with dropped passes. Robinson could emerge as the second-best receiver, although he won't be used in that role, at least initially.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Wayne Gandy, LG Justin Blalock, C Todd McClure, RG Kynan Forney, RT Todd Weiner. Backups -- T Quinn Ojinnaka, G Tyson Clabo.

The line had made a relatively smooth transition from the cut-blocking scheme to an in-line blocking scheme. The push in the run game has yet to fully develop but the protection of the quarterback has been relatively solid. The Falcons are very strong from guard to guard. Weiner, for the first time in five seasons, will be the front-side tackle on pass protection because Harrington is right handed, as opposed to Vick being left-handed.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- DE Jamaal Anderson, DT Jonathan Babineaux, DT Grady Jackson, DE John Abraham. Backups -- DE Chauncey Davis, DT Trey Lewis, DT Rod Coleman

This is the most unsettled part of the defense. With Coleman out (thigh) the interior has been very vulnerable against the run. Babineaux is undersized and more of a pass rusher. Grady Jackson is off to a slow start. That has allowed linemen to get onto the Falcons' linebackers, which is something that can't afford to happen.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Michael Boley, MLB Keith Brooking, WLB Demorrio Williams. Backups -- SLB Marcus Wilkins, MLB Tony Taylor, WLB Stephen Nicholas

Boley is the most versatile of this highly talented group. The big weakness is this is not a physical, ram-rodding group. All the linebackers fly to the ball but there are concerns about the lack of plays near the line of scrimmage. That could be improved if the line protects them better.

SECONDARY: Starters -- LCB DeAngelo Hall, RCB Lewis Sanders, SS Lawyer Milloy, FS Chris Crocker. Backups -- LCB David Irons, RCB Chris Houston, SS Daren Stone, FS Jimmy Williams. Nickel package: LCB Hall, RCB Sanderson, SS Million, FS Williams, NB Crocker

Though Hall is coming off his second Pro Bowl, he has not looked particularly sharp this preseason. He needs to regain his focus because new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is going to make his DBs play a lot of man coverage. Crocker has held off upstart Jimmy Williams.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Prater, KO/P Michael Koenen, LS Boone Stutz, KR Adam Jennings

Rossum remains one of the better return men in the league but he is being pushed by Jennings. Cundiff gets to kick in 11 games in domed stadiums.

CAROLINA

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Jake Delhomme. Backups -- David Carr, Matt Moore

Some feel this is a make-or-break year for Delhomme, especially with Carr waiting in the wings. Delhomme will start the season and every impression is he will get a fairly long leash. He's deserving of that. Delhomme is 35-25 as Carolina's starting quarterback and 5-2 in the postseason. He's thrown 89 touchdown passes and only 58 interceptions. He has a quarterback rating of 85. In the postseason, he's been even better -- 5-2, with four of those wins coming on the road. Still, Delhomme needs to cut down on some of the mistakes he made last season and play smarter. In 13 starts last year, Delhomme completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,805 yards with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Carr was beat down in Houston, sacked 249 times in five years. He'll be happy just to watch and let his body recover this year. Carr has started 76 games during his career, so the Panthers have a much better option than they did last year in Chris Weinke. But unless the Panthers bomb early, look for Delhomme to keep the starting job. If needed, he gives the Panthers more mobility in the pocket. Brett Basanez figured to be the No. 3 quarterback this season, but he went on IR with a sprained wrist.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB DeShaun Foster, FB Brad Hoover. Backups -- RB DeAngelo Williams, RB/FB Nick Goings, RB Alex Haynes

Foster will get the first crack at the starting job, but if he falters the team could turn to Williams. Foster has shown a lot of promise through the years, but he's never run for 1,000 yards in his career. The Panthers are hoping a new zone-blocking scheme installed by new coordinator Jeff Davidson changes that, allowing Foster to choose his own holes and cutback against the grain. This offense fits him well. Foster has looked strong, for the most part, in the preseason. The new offense also plays to the strength of Williams, a small, shifty back with great speed. Davidson plans to run a lot of screen plays and Williams could catch a lot of balls. Goings is Mr. Reliable, always there and always productive. Hoover enters his eighth year as Carolina's blocking back and the only concern here is whether his body is beginning to wear down. Still, he's very good at his craft and he too is excited about the change in scheme.

TIGHT END/H-BACK: Starter -- Jeff King. Backups -- Dante Rosario, Marcus Freeman

The Panthers are inexperienced at tight end after losing Kris Mangum to retirement. King, who caught only one pass last season, will start the season. Rosario, a rookie out of Oregon, has impressed coaches with his speed in training camp and appears to have overtaken Gaines for the No. 2 spot. Gaines has shown flashes, but he's considered more of a blocking tight end than anything else. Clearly, there isn't an Antonio Gates on this roster, but King should catch plenty of short passes this season.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Steve Smith, Keary Colbert. Backups -- Drew Carter, Dwayne Jarrett, Ryne Robinson, Chris Horn

Smith is coming off another Pro Bowl season in which he caught 83 passes for 1,166 yards and scored nine total touchdowns despite playing in only 14 games. He missed the first two games last season with a hamstring injury and it took him awhile to get on track. This year, he's made it through training camp and has suggested he's gunning for a 2,000-yard season. His success might be dependent upon how much help he gets from the other receivers on the club. Colbert is likely to start the season as the No. 2 guy, but he's fairly interchangeable with Carter. Colbert had a strong rookie season in 2004, but has been invisible the last two years. Carter has great straight-ahead track speed, but he doesn't have great hands and still needs to work on his route running. Both of these guys need to work to take pressure off Smith. Jarrett hasn't come along as quickly as the team hoped, but he still could figure into the mix as the season progresses. In fact, don't rule out the possibility of him starting later in the year. Robinson is a small, fast guy like Smith. He'll see some action in the slot.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Travelle Wharton, LG Mike Wahle, C Justin Hartwig, RG Ryan Kalil, RT Jordan Gross. Backups -- G/T Jeremy Bridges, C/G Geoff Hangartner, G Evan Mathis, T Frank Omiyale

The Panthers hope to avoid a repeat of last season, where they lost Wharton (knee) and Hartwig (groin) to season ending injuries in Week 1. Both are back and ready to go this year. Wahle, a Pro Bowl lineman in 2006, is coming off shoulder surgery but looks as strong as ever. With Wharton healthy, Gross has moved back to his more comfortable position at right tackle, where he hopes to stay. Gross has never missed a start in four seasons. The one spot up for grabs is right guard. Bridges, who started 14 games at right tackle in 2006, was slated to be the starter. However, he was suspended two games by the team after being arrested for pointing a gun at a woman outside of a strip club. Kalil, a rookie from USC, will begin the season there, although when Bridges returns it's likely he'll get his job back. Carolina has good depth for the first time in quite awhile. Hangartner started 15 games last season at center and Mathis started 15 at guard. Bridges can always slide out to tackle again if needed, but he is suspended for the first two games. The entire line is working hard to learn a new zone-blocking scheme installed by coordinator Jeff Davidson. The early results were good, but the Panthers struggled in preseason games 2 and 3 against the Eagles and Patriots, respectively.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Julius Peppers, LDT Kris Jenkins, RDT Ma'ake Kemoeatu, RDE Mike Rucker. Backups -- DE Stanley McClover, DT Damione Lewis, DT Kindal Moorehead, DE Charles Johnson, DE Otis Grigsby

This defensive line isn't as dominant as it once was, but it still has the potential to be pretty good. Peppers is one of the best in the game, recording a franchise-record 53.5 sacks in five seasons. Everyone who covers the team expects him to someday flirt with a 20-sack season. What sets Peppers apart from Dwight Freeney is he's also great against the run. The big problem for Peppers might be getting help on the other end. Rucker is coming off knee surgery and at 32 might not have the burst he once did. That means McClover, a second-year pro with only two games under his belt, will have to pick up the slack. He replaces veteran Al Wallace. Johnson, a third-round pick from Georgia, has shown little during the preseason. Inside, Jenkins is one of the best in the game when he stays motivated. He had many lapses last year, but still made the Pro Bowl on reputation. Kemoeatu is basically a two-down player whose primary job is to take up blockers and free everyone else up. Lewis, a former high first-round draft pick by the Rams, and Moorehead are pass rushing defensive tackles who mainly see action on third downs. Lewis was tied for third in sacks (4.5) last year, but his play tailed off as the season progressed.

LINEBACKER: Starters -- WLB Na'il Diggs, MLB Dan Morgan, SLB Thomas Davis. Backups -- ILB/OLB Jon Beason, OLB James Anderson, ILB Adam Seward, LB Tim Shaw

The big question here is: Can Morgan stay healthy after five career concussions? With him, the Panthers are a much better defense. Without him, the Panthers suffer a big drop-off, especially if they go with Seward, who is solid against the run but not extremely fast. The Panthers added Beason in the first round, but he's still working behind Diggs at weak-side linebacker -- at least for now. Like Morgan and Beason, Davis is a former first-round pick. He had incredible athletic ability, but has trouble applying that to the field. He's capable of making big plays on defense and really needs to step up this season. Carolina's best bet here might be to simplify things for him. If Morgan gets hurt, the Panthers would likely move Beason in if ready. Anderson will see some action on passing downs and continues to improve as a player. Shaw, a fifth-round pick earlier this year, figures to be a contributor on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: LCB Ken Lucas, RCB Chris Gamble, SS Chris Harris, FS Deke Cooper. Backups -- CB Richard Marshall, CB Curtis DeLoatch, SS Nate Salley, FS C.J. Wilson, CB Dion Byrum

The Panthers have three decent corners in Lucas, Gamble and Marshall. Marshall is coming off a solid rookie season in which he started several games and finished tied for the team lead in interceptions with three. If one of the starters goes down, there isn't any drop-off with Marshall. However, with Lucas healthy again Marshall returns to the No. 3 spot. The Panthers are hoping Lucas returns to his level of play in 2005 where he had a Pro Bowl type season, although he wasn't nominated. Gamble has put up some solid numbers in the past, but too often gets beat deep. He has the athleticism to be a top corner in the league and now it's time to take that next step. When the Panthers go to three corners, Gamble plays the nickel spot. Safety is the biggest area of concern for the Panthers. They lost Mike Minter to retirement and didn't re-sign either Shaun Williams or Colin Branch. That means Nate Salley, who played in a handful of games last year as a rookie is the only returner with any experience. Carolina acquired Harris is a trade with Chicago, but so far he's struggled in the preseason. Cooper is currently working with the starters, but could be replaced by Salley if he can recover from a lingering knee injury. Don't be surprised if the Panthers add some help from outside the organization before the season begins.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK John Kasay, P Jason Baker, LS Jason Kyle, KR Nick Goings, PR Ryne Robinson

Kasay is coming off a strong season in which he was 20-for-20 on field goals inside the 50-yard line. He was 4-for-7 from beyond 50 with one miss coming from 65. Baker has developed into one of the top punters in the league (and was paid like it earlier this off-season). He's had a terrific preseason, routinely booming punts over 50 yards with great hang time. Kyle remains arguably the most consistent long-snapper in the game. Carolina's return game was atrocious last season, finishing dead last in kickoff return average (19.4) and punt return average (4.6). The Panthers attempted to address both areas when they drafted Robinson in the fourth round. But while he looks good on punts, he was yanked off the kickoff return team. The Panthers are now expected to go Goings, who is reliable, but hardly a guy capable of breaking a long return on any consistent basis. Goings averaged 24.2 yards per kickoff return last season, the best mark on the team, ahead of DeAngelo Williams (19.5) and Richard Marshall (20.8).

NEW ORLEANS

QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Drew Brees. Backups -- Jamie Martin

After a slow start to the preseason, Brees played lights out in his final three exhibition games and appeared to be in mid-season form in completing 35 of 39 passes for 355 yards and one touchdown in that stretch. Martin has had his ups and downs, but is firmly entrenched as Brees' backup.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- HB Deuce McAllister, FB Mike Karney. Backups: HB Reggie Bush, HB Aaron Stecker, HB Pierre Thomas

Even though they played sparingly in the preseason, McAllister and Bush seem primed to have monster seasons in Sean Payton's wide-open offensive attack. They should be more dangerous given that they were in the system for an entire off-season, so Payton will no doubt utilize the strengths of both players. Stecker will likely be a third-down back and kick returner. Karney has proven to be a valuable asset to McAllister and Bush with his blocking skills.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Eric Johnson. Backups -- Mark Campbell, Billy Miller

Johnson and Campbell took turns starting with the first-team offense in training camp, but Johnson will likely get the edge as the starter because of his catching ability. Campbell, who had a bit of a back problem late in the preseason, is used mainly as a blocker. Miller turned out to be a solid acquisition late last season as a receiver and extra blocker.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Marques Colston, Devery Henderson. Backups -- David Patten, Terrance Copper, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem

Colston, who was the biggest surprise in the NFL a year ago as a lowly seventh-round draft pick, will try to build on his 70-catch, 1,000-yard season as will Henderson, who takes over for Joe Horn after averaging a healthy 23.3 yards a catch last season. Patten and Copper battled throughout the exhibition season for the third receiving spot, but all six of these receivers will get a chance to showcase their talents in this offense.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jammal Brown, LG Jamar Nesbit, C Jeff Faine, RG Jahri Evans, RT Jon Stinchcomb. Backups -- G/C Jonathan Goodwin, T Zach Strief, T Jermon Bushrod, G Andy Alleman

A solid group that gave up just 18 sacks in the first 15 games of 2006 returns intact, much to Brees' delight. Brown earned All-Pro honors after switching to left tackle to protect Brees' blind side, but Nesbit, Faine and Stinchcomb were solid as well. Evans stepped in as a rookie and performed like a 10-year veteran. Goodwin and Strief are solid backups.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Charles Grant, LT Antwan Lake, RT Kendrick Clancy, RE Will Smith. Backups -- DT Brian Young, DT Hollis Thomas, DE Rob Ninkovich, DE Josh Cooper

The Saints' defensive front is a formidable group when Grant and Smith, who combined for 16 1/2 sacks a year ago, are at the top of their game. They bring a lot of speed and power off the edge, but are keys to the run defense as well. Lake will likely start at the beginning of the season while Young continues to come back from a fractured foot and Clancy won the starting nose tackle spot because of Thomas' weight issues, but all are important in their weekly rotation.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Scott Fujita, MLB Mark Simoneau, WLB Scott Shanle. Backups -- MLB Brian Simmons, WLB Troy Evans

This group is expecting a lot more after learning to play together on the run last season following the late-preseason additions of Simoneau and Shanle. But they're much more comfortable with each other now. The depth of the unit is vastly improved with the addition of Simmons, who could not unseat Simoneau in the middle, Jones and Evans, who is a special-teams demon.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Mike McKenzie, FS Josh Bullocks, SS Roman Harper, RCB Jason David. Backups -- S Kevin Kaesviharn, CB Fred Thomas, CB Jason Craft, S Jay Bellamy, CB Usama Young

This unit ranked third against the pass last season and the Saints think they've upgraded the group with David, who won the starting job over Thomas, and Kaesviharn, who pushed Bullocks for the starting job in the back end of the secondary. Even though they may not start, Kaesviharn, Thomas, Craft and Bellamy give them plenty of options in the nickel and dime packages. Young has shown lots of ability in the preseason.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- PK Olindo Mare, P Steve Weatherford, LS Kevin Houser, KOR Lance Moore, PR Reggie Bush

Mare, a strong-legged former Miami Dolphins star, takes over for the dependable and accurate John Carney. But the punter remains the same as Weatherford won a close duel with former Pro Bowl punter Chris Hanson in training camp and the exhibition season. Houser has developed into one of the leagues' better long snappers over the years. Moore and Bush give the Saints two of the speedier return men in the game.


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