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NFL Training Camp Preview: NFC South

On the day Carson Wentz injured his knee in Los Angeles last season, the last thing anyone in the NFL expected was that the Philadelphia Eagles would win the Super Bowl. But they did, didn’t they? The thing is, you can never tell during the season where or when the next surprise is coming from. That’s what keeps the fans coming, the machine rolling.

Soon, the 2018 season will kick off and there’s always hope that your team will be in the middle of it when it ends. Here is a look at the NFC South as NFL training camp gets set to begin next week:

Atlanta Falcons

Two years after their disastrous Super Bowl meltdown against New England, there is reason to believe the most talented team in the NFC remains the Atlanta Falcons, And that’s saying a lot considering how the Philadelphia Eagles are the defending league champions.

The reason for this is quarterback Matt Ryan, “Matty Ice” as popular culture refers to him. And the Falcons must feel the same way since they just put him on ice, signing him to a five-year contract extension that will reward him with $150 million, with first $100 million guaranteed. And that doesn’t even kick in until after the 2018 season.

NFC South preview

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But what’s the rush? Ryan’s stats fell of the table last season. He threw only 20 touchdowns passes and his interceptions rose from seven to 12. And we haven’t even mentioned his completion percentage.

So what will Ryan be like if, let’s say, Julio Jones and the Falcons can’t get together a new deal. Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants seem to be in footrace to see who can the make most the quickest. Keep in mind that Jones had just three touchdowns all last season and only one came from within the red zone.

Maybe Ryan and Steve Sarkisian, the offensive coordinator who took over when Kyle Shanahan became coach of the San Francisco 49ers, didn’t speak the same language. The certainly didn’t score as many points, falling off by 200 from the 2016 season.

If the offense continues to be average, it will be up to guys like Vic Beasley to create the havoc with the pass rush, The Falcons drafted cornerback Isaiah Oliver in the second round and lineman Deadrin Senat in the third.

It seems like there aren’t many people of the Falcons bandwagon this season. They come into year with worse playoff odds than teams like Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Chargers.

Carolina Panthers

No one has had more jobs in the NFL than Norv Turner. Stickpins with his name of them are all over the league map, the newest and shiniest one now stuck in Charlotte, N.C.

And we all know who Turner was hired to improve – Cam Newton. Newton has never been a super accurate thrower. The man makes things happen with his legs. But time has proven that to be insufficient when it comes to making the Panthers a perennial postseason contender.

NFC South preview

Jonathan Bachman / Getty

The second-best player on the team is second-year halfback Christian McCaffrey, who led the team with 80 receptions. But he is not a deep threat. Neither is tight end Greg Olsen, who will be back after an ankle injury robbed him of half the 2017 season.

The running game will be led by C.J. Anderson, who joins the team from Denver. But Andrew Norwell, their all-pro guard, is now playing with Jacksonville.

Julius Peppers and Thomas Davis are back to lead the defense. But they have three young studs, including Bryan Cox Jr., who begins his second season. And linebacker Luke Kuechly is perhaps the most popular player in the organization.

New Orleans Saints

Drew Brees, 39, threw for fewer yards and had fewer touchdown passes in 2017 than at any time in his career with the Saints, But no one seems to be in a hurry to find a replacement for the future Hall of Famer and his $50 million two-year extension is proof positive of that, even though it’s up to Saints if 2019 will happen or not.

One thing Brees will have going for him again this season is receiver Michael Thomas, who caught 104 passes last season on his way to the Pro Bowl. Willie Snead left to sign with the Ravens.

NFC South preview

Jamie Squire / Getty

And no one had a better 2017 draft than the Saints, as halfback Alvin Kamara and cornerback Marshon Lattimore were offensive and defensive rookies of the year. Kamara will be needed because Mark Ingram will miss the first four games for violating the league’s performance enhancing drug policy.

The Saints have not played in an NFC title game since winning the Super Bowl in 2009 and there are those who believe Sean Payton’s time in town is close to its end, even though the Saints won the division last season and beat Carolina in the wild card round.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Right off the bat, the Bucs are behind the eight-ball, having to deal with the suspension of quarterback Jameis Winston. He will miss the first three games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy by giving an Uber driver a tough time.

And that will hurt, even though they are 18-27 in games he has started, although his 2017 season was complicated by an injured throwing shoulder. Still, his career quarterback rating is actually better than Andrew Luck’s. Go figure.

So for now, the job will belong to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has used his Harvard education to make millions bouncing around the NFL.

Not having Winston around to create offense is going to hamper the Bucs because they don’t exactly have a power running game. They ranked 27th in the league in 2017 and Doug Martin now plays for Oakland.

On defense, the Bucs have added Jason Pierre-Paul from the Giants among four additions to a unit which allowed the most yards and had the fewest sacks in the NFL last season. The Buccaneers also took Washington’s Vits Vea, a 6-4, 350-pound defensive tackle, with the seventh overall pick.