Once again the NFC South is up for grabs. A division that routinely flips you for real features a defending champion in Carolina no one trusts, a potentially dominant squad in New Orleans and a pair of bounceback candidates in Atlanta and Tampa Bay. It's difficult to trust any of these teams and even harder to count anyone out.
CAMP BATTLES TO WATCH: NFC SOUTH
Key battle: Nate Chandler vs. Byron Bell vs. Garry Williams vs. Andrew McDonald, tackle
Not just left tackle but right tackle too! Following the retirement of long-time tackle Jordan Gross, the Panthers have four guys who they'll need to fill two positions.
For all the talk about the Panthers issues at wideout, tackle is the biggest concern. Cam Newton needs protecting for who he's throwing to matter at all.
Bell and Chandler are the clear favorites to win the left- and right-tackle spots, respectively. Both guys have been dumping pounds this offseason. Bell's "down" to 321 pounds (he played right tackle at 345 last year) while Chandler's a svelte 310 (he played right guard at 320 in 2013).
Both players were undrafted free agents signed by Carolina. Chandler received an extension about a month ago, with GM Dave Gettleman calling him an "ascending" player.
If Gettleman can turn Bell and Chandler into a pair of above-average tackles people might start asking where he's keeping his magic hog mollie dust.
Predicted Outcome: Bell mans the left side and Chandler handles the right tackle spot. The reduced weight's actually a big deal, particularly for Bell, who needs to be more nimble getting Newton's blind side.
Other Battles to Watch: Kelvin Benjamin/Jason Avant/Jerricho Cotchery, WR ... Surely the rookie will play. He's too good in the red zone. Who gets squeezed between Avant and Cotchery? We'll guess Avant for now.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Key battle: Champ Bailey vs. Patrick Robinson vs. Corey White vs. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB
Somehow there's only a single starting position of concern in the Saints secondary; 2012's disaster of a pass defense season feels like eons ago.
Now the Saints sport multiple talented bodies looking to earn the second cornerback position behind Keenan Lewis, the clear-cut No. 1 guy (and still one of the most undervalued free-agent signings in recent years) in Rob Ryan's defense.
Bailey's removed from his best years with the Broncos, but he's not that far away from playing cornerback at a high level. In a secondary with Lewis, Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro, Bailey won't be asked to do as much as he was in Denver.
Robinson missed almost all of 2013 after suffering a knee injury; he's a former first-round pick who flashed plenty of promise in 2012. White's a youngster with upside as well and Jean-Baptiste is a big "Seattle-style" corner taken in the second round, biding his time until the job is his.
"My expectation is to hopefully make an impact somewhere on the field, somewhere on the defense and hopefully become a starter," Jean-Baptiste said.
It would be too much to expect him to win the job but he can push the veterans.
Predicted Outcome: Bailey nabs the job because of his experience and what's required of him in defending the second wide receivers (a.k.a. Roddy White, Mike Evans and Jerricho Cotchery, gulp). The Saints suddenly have options at the nickel and in generally moving bodies around in Ryan's defense.
Other Battles to Watch: Mark Ingram vs. Pierre Thomas vs. Khiry Robinson vs. Traveres Cadet, RB ... Robinson is the sexy sleeper in fantasy circles, while everyone knows Thomas will be effective (and Ingram won't). Don't sleep on Cadet either. The starter designation is nominal since everyone -- including Brandin Cooks -- will get plenty of action in this offense. Prediction here is Thomas wins the title but Robinson emerges as the feature back with Cooks playing the Darren Sproles role.
Key battle: Paul Worrilow vs. Prince Shembo, Joplo Bartu vs. Tim Dobbins, LB
The Falcons appear to be moving more and more towards a 3-4 defense under Mike Nolan; personnel moves say as much this past offseason, even though Mike Smith maintains they'll be "multiple."
The season-ending loss of Sean Weatherspoon -- before the season could even begin -- was a devastating one though. The former first-round pick was supposed to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2012 (he played just seven games) to lead the new-ish look defense.
Now a slew of unproven/unknown players have to step in.
Worrilow, an undrafted free agent, started 12 games last year for Atlanta and currently projects as the top candidate to start alongside Bartu in the middle. (Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora are the logical outside pieces at linebacker.)
Shembo is a 2014 fourth-round pick making a transition to inside linebacker. The difference is pretty stark, obviously, but Shembo's doing his best to boil things down as simply as he can.
“Football is a simple game,” Shembo said. “Really to get paid to do something like this — I don't even think about getting paid because I'm just having fun. I've been playing since I was little and not much really changes. See ball. you get ball. It's simple.”
The Falcons signed Pat Angerer this week to help fill the void too.
PREDICTED OUTCOME: The rookie Shembo gives Worrilow and Bartu a run for their money but the guys with the most experience end up winning out. There's too much work here to make a transition that quickly. This is a pretty terrifying unit for the Falcons heading into camp. If they get replacement-level production from the linebackers the defense will be vastly improved.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Key battle: Austin Seferian-Jenkins vs. Tim Wright vs. Brandon Meyers, TE
The Buccaneers are intent on building Bears 2.0 in Tampa, apparently. Vincent Jackson and newly-drafted Mike Evans are about as close to the Brandon Marshall-Alshon Jeffery basketball combo as you can get.
But the Bucs lack a Martellus Bennett. Enter Seferian-Jenkins, Tampa's second-round pick this year.
He's a beasty 6'5" but the Mackey Award winner doesn't carry the same expectations as a guy like Eric Ebron in Detroit for some reason. He's not getting handed the job, however.
Wright put up good numbers as a rookie for the Bucs and Myers is only two years removed from an 800-yard season with the Raiders.
There's some versatility to work with here for Josh McCown and given Lovie Smith's offensive history, it wouldn't be surprising to see multiple tight ends on the field. The ability to block will play a bigger role here, too, given how much Tampa could lean on Doug Martin in 2014.
Jenkins is at a pretty large disadvantage with training camp looming too, as he wasn't able to spend the maximum amount of time with the team working out due to graduation rules as well as a foot injury.
"The only thing you can really do is try to learn the formations and concepts, the methodology of the offense, but there's nothing that substitutes for the hands-on experience of being out there running routes and getting the timing down with the quarterbacks, the communication, all that stuff," Jenkins said. "There's definitely going to be a little bit of a learning curve, but that's to be expected when you're not there at all.
"It's nothing I can't overcome. I'm just going into it one day at a time and will be working really hard."
PREDICTED OUTCOME: Seferian-Jenkins is the future here but Wright's additional experience and lack of injury will help him vault to the top of the depth chart by the start of the season. As noted, it probably won't matter a lot if we're seeing two tight-end sets frequently.
Other Battles to Watch: Adrian Clayborn vs. William Gholston vs. Da'Quan Bowers, DE ... With the offseason signing of Michael Johnson, the available snaps on the defensive line are squeezed up quite a bit for these pass rushers. Clayborn's got the edge and probably wins; despite an acceptable 5.5. sacks in 2013, he's been a disappointment for the Bucs since they drafted him in the first round in 2011.